Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Been a Long Time

I've got a lot of reading to catch up on. Just as a long-simmering threat exploded into the most imporant geopolitical moment of the past five years, a deadline of which I was previously not told was unceremoniously shat upon me. Consequently, I spent the past week hiding in my headphones, wrestling with amp-emulator plug-ins (spiking 110Hz and 2.7kHz does not a Marshall stack make!) and trying to turn what was a snare drum from a timbale back into a snare drum.

Mercifully, my ears were well-tuned to my clients' particular idiom: I've recently been digging deep into the annals of sweaty, hirsute rawk. Once the whole Adbusters hipster debacle had saturated the blogosphere, I desperately needed to hear some music whose sincerity ripped straight past try-hard into the epically ersatz - and what music better exemplifies balls-out self-belief than vintage heavy metal?

Prog rock. The only thing that trumps a Rayon-locked dude with a Les Paul is a Rayon-locked dude with a Les Paul singing about extraterrestrial dragons.

What's long fascinated me most about pre-thrash heavy metal is its utterly junior-high male mindset. Here's the lay of the land: smoking pot, super heroes, and a cryptomystical obsession with death and Satan. These may seem like quaint and hokey enthusiasms in the era of phonecams and the Nintendo Wii, but throw out every gadget with a microprocessor and see what else there is to do when posessed of that restive adolescent essence. If humour rears its head (and it rarely does), it's typically sophomoric. If a girl enters the picture, it's framed in the same manner that a hormonally hysterical boy would gaze cautiously at the creatures on the other side of the cafeteria: there walks some unfathomable succubus or unattainable Venus! Which is actually the best argument against anointing Led Zeppelin the original heavy metal band: they may have sung songs about Vikings and Tolkien characters, but they also dared vocalise something approximating adult sexuality as opposed to, well, this.

In the introduction to Rat Salad, Paul Wilkinson parallels the history of rock with an average human lifespan: from its goofy insouscience in the '50s, across its mercurial adolescence in the '60s, through the barn-burning death of innocence manifested as the late-'70s punk shitfit, and finally slouching into the slick, careerist adulthood of the '80s. Based on such a timeline, the blossoming of prog rock as a technical & thematic maturation of early metal would correspond to the naive hubris of a first-year philosophy major who's just read Beyond Good and Evil, Siddartha, and/or The Simulacra for the first time. The clumsy gumbo of half-baked New Ageism, cherry-picked Oriental religion, and modernist philosophy; the use of fantastic narrative to make some profound (if foggy) point; the unflinching self-seriousness with which the discourse it carried out - why, it's as though those insufferable freshmen Know-It-Alls you sat behind in the lecture hall started a band!

The student analogy also underscores the class difference between much early metal and first-wave prog: while Black Sabbath were a blue-collar bunch from dingy Birmingham, Genesis were posh Charterhouse schoolboys. Though technical prowess is a prime directive in both genres, it's born of very different social instincts: in metal, of the working-class pride of a well-honed skill; in prog, of an indulgent, academic studiousness. The socioeconomic gap can also account for the lyrical thematic differences between metal (pulpy fantasy and B-movie theology) and prog (packed full of highbrow allusions to psychoanalysis, cultural theory, and philosophy).

Of course, with a little persistence and practice, some of these arrogant geeks actually progress (what is the parent word of "Prog" anyway?) into more difficult, exploratory realms. Their employ of philosophical themes graduates from toe-dipping to something more thorough; their inquisitive disposition often makes them early-adopters of new technology; the best even succeed in breaking new ground.

This creative questing is, of course, not without its pitfalls. Curiosity can still kill the cat, and what we need isn't always more technology. But better to look foolish and take risks than rest on someone else's laurels and give up even trying.

Anyway, click on the mix title to download. If we use Wilkinson's rock lifeline, this mix (at one song per year) would trace some young fellow's development from age 13 through 23. Or something like that.

Hard, Heavy, Heady

1. Fuzzy Duck - "A Word Form Big D" (00:00)
2. May Blitz - "Snakes and Ladders" (01:32)
3. Black Sabbath - "The Wizard" (05:58)
4. Sir Lord Baltimore - "Hell Hound" (10:16)
5. Warhorse - "Vulture Blood" (13:32)
6. Colosseum - "The Machine Demands a Sacrifice" (18:35)
7. Heldon - "Standby" (21:50)
8. Tool - "The Grudge" (35:52)
9. Magma - "Mekanik Zain" (Live; 44:15)
10. King Crimson - "Indiscipline" (01:00:18)

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