Albums of 2010 – Bingen, Blackie… and black metal. Part III: Elements

04/02/2011 § 2 Comments

It seems a bit unusual to be writing about 2010 in February. But it’s prudent to reflect on the previous year’s musical achievements whilst having the benefit of knowing what 2011 has brought along already. There have been an immense amount of new metal albums this year already: Hollow Haze, Silver Lake, Mitochondrian and the high quality Silent Stream of Godless Elegy to name a few, whereas March’s debut release from Tesseract seems promising for the ardent Textures and SikTh fans.

The final part of my review of 2010 doesn’t reflect on any one band in particular, but more on principles. 2010 gave me the ability to define what it is that makes a metal album truly great, which elements, which concepts, and what goes far beyond the music itself. There are certain traits, some which most people would not even consciously realise, which make a metal album great for any particular listener. And it was the albums that meant the most to me through 2010, W.A.S.P, Hildegard, Agalloch and Crystal Castles, that shunted these meanings so firmly into place.

1. Songwriting: The way a song is written is actually one of the least important points when it comes to putting across great music. The method through which a song is structured, whether you’re going for traditional metal, progressive metal or black metal, is just the underlayer for what makes the overall musical package something special. This is why some of the most complex and skilfully written progressive metal songs can seem to have almost no heart and why a lot of traditional metal songs can be so bland. A great song is not about how it’s laid out on paper. A song’s main chord structure, tempo and timing acts as little more than a vessel for all the things it is possible of carrying. Delivery, guitarwork, vision and our own feelings towards all these are more important. Songwriting’s importance to me exists only because of its fundamentality.

2. Vocal delivery: The vocalist truly acts as a transmitter behind the force the song is carrying. Some of the great metal vocalists of all time have been so successful in what they do because not only did they have natural talents for singing, but they were carrying the meaning of the song with a force, power or emotion which made the whole thing genuine. Singers who I revere in metal such as Blackie Lawless, Ray Alder and Mikael Åkerfeldt are able to carry the extra weight and meaning perfectly behind every note that they sing. Nothing feels ingenuine, absolutely everything is natural. A true metal vocalist can project with power and fury, but also perfect finesse through any song’s softer sections. I have heard too many metal vocalists who have incredible power, but no ability to sing the softer material.

And the delivery of a song is so much more important than the lyrics themselves. Whilst great lyrics are important to a song, I do not feel that they are vital. Good lyrics sung terribly are all but useless since their meaning and importance gets almost entirely removed – but it’s possible for bad lyrics to be sung well. If bad lyrics are sung with enough conviction, enough natural ability and even enough ironic consciousness of their meaning – the overall effect of the song is far from ruined. There are indeed tons of metal songs with dreadfully silly lyrics, but if they’re put across well enough, the song doesn’t go anywhere towards losing its effect.

3. Solos: Guitar soloing is a hugely important part of a metal song when it comes to injection emotion into the infrastructure. A guitar solo can carry a vast amount of feeling, and since the best metal songs are written by the best guitarists, the solos form part and parcel of the edifice. A metal song which is well written and sung is almost perfected by a good guitar solo – one which is long, melodic, skilful, technical and fluid. Some of the best songs I have heard in metal – Fates Warning’s A World Apart, Savatage’s Legions, Coroner’s Serpent Moves or Sirens, W.A.S.P.’s Heaven’s Hung in Black, Opeth’s A Fair Judgement, Black Sabbath’s Warning and Conception’s In Your Multitude – all have exceptionally played solos filled with emotion which make them riveting and nourishing to listen to time and time again.

4. Artwork: Though a lot of people would hold that an album is only about the music, there are still a couple more things which, for me, make an album truly stand out. An album’s artwork can have a great effect on my overall idea of it. The artwork is the visual representation of the way the band sees itself, sees that album, how it wants it to appear to you when you haven’t even heard a bar. The artwork tells you about the band’s attitude; their seriousness or their flippancy. Being a very visual person, a lot of the time I can’t help, somewhere in my mind, picturing the album’s artwork when listening to the thing. Since I want to be able to sense an album on as many levels as possible, the artwork is one of the most obvious ways of doing this.

However, an album’s artwork does not have to be masterful. It does not have to be some expertly-crafted original hand-painting or a digital mastery of fractal proportions. It just has to suit the theme and feel of the album. If the artwork to the album really fits – and is an unpretentious and honest representation of what the band feels about its output – it lets the listener go one stage further to understanding it. It gives you hints, clues, suggestions, translations and feelings about the band’s inside thoughts towards their creation. It is a highly important factor in the completion of a great album, and these days, with the ubiquity of mp3 sharing, one which is being increasingly overlooked by fans.

5. Associations: The final slab of importance is how and where we rank the album emotionally. This is a very subconscious point, and one which gets overlooked by the large majority of people because of its subtlety, but it’s still a vital one. What can really push an album forward to making it something worthy is how we fit it in on a personal level: what it reminds us of, what point in our lives it makes us think of, when, why, who and how. Those albums which remind us of something particularly good are far more likely to appeal to us. Those albums which remind us of something bad or painful will hardly get any playtime. Indeed, there are albums which have good music – but which I relate to such negative periods in my life – that they put me back in that place, and the thing barely lasts a minute or two of spinning as a result.

These associations do not have to relate to things which we have personally experienced. We can associate an album with somewhere we have never been, or a time we have never existed in, but which we like the idea of. There are plenty of people in love with the mystery of Norwegian black metal but who never have been to Norway, there are plenty of people who love the rich Middle Eastern textures of oriental metal but who will never end up in the Middle East, or the romance of viking metal or the medieval ambiance of times gone by. The ideas, the projections of the places and how we associate them with the music can contribute greatly to how we view an album. Sometimes an association can make an album, and it’s this that we can live alongside, rather than necessarily loving every tone and cadence of the music itself.

2010 made me realise a great deal about music and my own subconscious definitions of it. For a long time I struggled with my own resolution of metal and what it truly meant for an album to be great to me, and I’m more or less satisfied with these explanations. In making an album, the musicians do their work musically and artistically, but if we can enhance the piece further with our own associations, making it something that works solely for us in a unique way, then everything is in place.

These ideas have been in gestation for many years now, but 2011 could still modify my views. A large part of music is all about progression and change after all, so if 2011 revises such ideas, I wholeheartedly welcome it.

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