Is metal dead?

The last few weeks have been an interesting one in music. Over in the US one of the iconic bands of the 1980’s, the band that defined excess, announced that after their next tour they would be calling it quits. Hardly a shock, we’ve known about Mick Mars’ failing health for some time, but still quite a defining moment in heavy metal history. Dom Lawson turns his attention to the pretty boys of rock, arguing that the image created for a band is as important as the music (for working out which bands not to listen to). He has a point. So do Scott Rowley and Terry Bezer when arguing that metal bands are simply evolving and that the media are being too safe (respectively).

Firstly, as a music genre, metal has survived longer than any other recorded medium. That it has survived at all is a testament to it’s universal appeal. True that the father’s of metal do still exist in jazz and blues, both riding on a resurgence of popularity that has even seen Robbie Williams getting in on the act, but neither have existed as popular as ever through six decades. To go back to Scott Rowley metal is a continuously evolving beast, borrowing from every genre surrounding it. Look at some of the most popular songs in the last 60 years and you can find a metal god at it’s heart. One of the biggest selling country and western records of all time? Written by Alice Cooper. Don’t believe me? Look up the sales of “Only Women Bleed” to see the list of artists that have covered it. As a genre metal has borrowed from almost every style in existence. Aerosmith were doing nu metal while Linkin Park were still in school. Tarja Turunen was singing opera while performing with Nightwish and Courteny Love’s violinist, Emilie Autumn, plays classical violin when not acting out her role as a Victorian bad girl.

Alice Cooper dragged shock rock out of the 60’s, Black Sabbath dragged heavy metal out of the 70’s and Metallica dragged Thrash out of the 80’s. Today it’s the most vibrant and diverse genre on the planet. Even the sub genres have sub genres it’s evolved so much. For a true music fan there is something for everyone, be it the sanitised AOR of Nickelback, the heavy industrial power of Rammstein, or the soul crushing black metal of Darkthrone. From Gallic bagpipes, Scottish sea shanties, and sweeping orchestral fantasies. It has sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden can still headline festivals is proof that it’s still very much alive as a genre. In 10 years time i expect to be hearing the same arguments that metal is becoming stale when Avenged Sevenfold and Bring Me The Horizon are headlining every other year. I also still expect to be hearing Black Veil Brides complaining about not having a number 1 album yet and being on the second stage, sorry but no one likes a dick head (even if the album isn’t actually all that bad).

Dom makes a good point about a band’s style in his post. While Scott argues that we should ignore what a band looks like and just listen, the look of a band is closely tied to their music. It’s a style generated to appeal to a particular audience and if I want to be honest that audience is not me in most cases. But I can look at a band and quickly make assumptions based on their look. Low necked t-shirts with tattoos on the neck? It’s a fair assumption that the vocals will be screamed into the microphone at such a high volume that I won’t be able to understand a word being sung. Face covered in white paint, upside down crucifixes and an abundance of black? Songs about death, Satan or Norse gods with guttural vocals that again I won’t have a clue about what is being sung. It’s a generalisation, but one that works in almost every case. By looking at the band you know what your ears are being let in for. However this is NOT new. In what way is this different to the bondage trousers and spiked hair of the punk era? Of the studs and leather of the NWOBHM? As a genre we have always tried to classify ourselves through our clothes and style and again it’s one that has continued to evolve. From Scandinavian metal to steampunk we define what we listen to through what we wear. Did fans of Slayer in the 1980’s suddenly stop listening to Iron Maiden? No, they didn’t. So go out on a limb and listen to all the different bands and use their look as a guide. But remember every guide is just a guide and not gospel.

Finally there is the argument that the media is playing it too safe. That because the media only wants squeaky clean the record companies are only promoting squeaky clean. That bands are too enmeshed in maintaining their image to take risks when metal is meant to be about risk and being the bad boys of music. I hate to say this but by definition that makes Justin Bieber the biggest metal act on the planet right now. While it’s always nostalgic to look back on the antics of Ozzy Osbourne, Slash and Nikki Sixx it should also be remembered that these very acts are the reason so many great musicians are no longer with us. Marc Bolan, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse. Who knows what music would have been produced had some of the greatest names in rock not died prematurely due to excess. It’s only due to incredibly good fortune that Nikki Sixx is still alive to announce the retirement of Motley Crue, by rights Girls, Girls, Girls should have been their final album. As a genre we shouldn’t celebrate the extreme, but celebrate the music created. After all, it’s the fusion of guitar, drums, bass and vocals that gets us hooked on a band, not how much alcohol and drugs the band can consume before going out on stage. As for complaining about the industry focusing too much on bands like Nickelback, Sleeping With Sirens and You Me At Six? They’re businesses, they’ll always promote what will sell, no different today than when Sigue Sigue Sputnik was created in the 1980’s. And yet despite decades of the media ignoring metal as a genre (with the rare exception of the occasional Radio 1 DJ) it’s still going as strong as ever and still has its bad boys. Just ask any owner of a Scandinavian wooden church.

Almost live.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while but haven’t had the time until now to do so. There’s a disturbing trend amongst the music industry where bands are playing “almost live”. Fans of pop stars like Madonna may be aware that a lot of her concerts are performed to a prerecorded backing track. What is less known is that this trend is happening a lot more in rock and punk music too. When you go and see a band like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath one of the joys of seeing them is knowing they’re playing live. Famously in Rush’s concert video from 1988, A Show Of Hands, you can see a change in the guitar used by Alex Lifeson part way through 2112. It wasn’t careful editing of 2 nights footage, despite the concert being recorded over 2 nights, it was the result of the fastest guitar change I have ever witnessed, live in front of me at the concert. Real music played live, with no gimmicks or tapes.

That’s not to say that some concerts shouldn’t have some prerecorded instruments. Emilie Autumn puts on a remarkable show where she blends recorded instruments with live music. As a classically trained violinist she certainly doesn’t need to use tapes for her own music but as a multi-instrumentalist it’s a bit difficult to play 2 instruments at once while also singing lead vocals. Another trick often used to good effect is loop taping, recording and playing back on the fly to layer music together. When used it can add a dimension to a live show where a single artist wants to expand on what otherwise would be just a single guitar and voice, allowing them to mix into their music a rhythm and bass line to an otherwise one dimensional lead guitar. These tricks all have valid uses in live music when done openly, without any subterfuge.

So it’s extremely disappointing as a fan of live music to hear increasingly of rock and pop punk bands resorting to tricks in order to preserve their “live performances”. At some festivals it has become almost impossible to tell if the band you are watching is actually playing live. The most common trick would appear to be to play along to an entirely recorded track, akin to an old Top Of The Pops appearance where the entire performance was mimed. Famously when asked to mime on a tv chat show the Red Hot Chilli Peppers swapped positions so none of the band members was actually playing their own instruments in protest at being asked to mime. In almost every case the bands will say they play live but “turn down” their instruments to half volume. That is not “live”. It was discovered that many of the bands on the Warped Tour favoured this method. Another trick that I have personally witnessed is that of the “session musician”, where one or more session artists are employed offstage to play the parts that the band should be playing. It’s even more disappointing that this trick was performed by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz’s pet project All Time Low, where for an entire concert their lead guitarist failed to play a single note, seemingly able to mimic the rhythm guitarist’s guitar strumming style while playing and even succeeding in playing a twirling guitar solo without even touching the strings of his guitar. If you look carefully at videos of the band playing at 2011’s Sonisphere Festival you will see at the back of the stage to the far left a much older guitarist who is clearly not a member of the band playing the lead guitar part for the entire concert. It is this complete lack of respect for the fans of live music that I find appalling. Many of these bands will tell stories of how they’ve worked hard playing gigs in small venues and building up a fan base from playing live. If that was true then have the courtesy to trust that your fans will still be fans even if your live show contains the occasional off note or out of key vocal. Not one person has ever said “I wish Ozzy Osbourne had mimed at Download so Black Sabbath could sound as good as they do after months of mixing and production on their album”. When we see a band live we expect to see them as they are. The blistering guitar solo by Alice Cooper’s guitarist Orianthi, Neil Peart’s YYZ drum solo, Pete Townsend’s thumping bass riffs. To have them on stage miming would be a travesty and I know no one who would not feel cheated and let down to find their personal heroes had actually performed “almost live”.

A marriage made in Heaven or Hell?

If ever there was a marriage made in Hell it has to be Microsoft and Apple, right? And yet it may surprise many just how compatible the products of these 2 companies actually are.

When I’m not getting annoyed at the petty politics of the UK and the rest of the world I am at heart a geek. I hacked my first computer game when I was 10 or 11, a text adventure written for the Sinclair ZX81. I created my first website back in 1995 and ran my first online business back in 1996. One thing that has not changed in the years since is my love of gaming and music. My home setup is one that works well both for a simple bedroom setup, or as in my case for my living room. And it’s a lot cheaper to make than people might think.

My main media player is my XBox 360. However, being an old and creaky model there’s no way it can hold just over 40 year’s worth of music collecting. And after so many years of computing what do I do with the old PC that’s now no good for gaming? Why not stream my music from the PC to the XBox? Luckily over the years I’ve made it a habit to rip all my music to MP3, even before Apple brought out it’s first iPod, so I’m spared the pain of attempting to rip 2000 CDs to my computer.

iTunes is a great application for keeping my music organised, but unfortunately is not recognised by the XBox as a valid source of streaming music or video. So in a moment of Microsoft/Apple Hell I need to find an alternative. Thankfully Microsoft has a free solution in the form of Zune. A quick download, install and change of settings and it’s soon imported my iTunes music library ready to stream. Before switching to the XBox there’s still one last thing to do. Hidden in the Zune settings there’s an option to allow other devices to access your music library. Handily there’s a tick box for all available XBoxes and in next to no time 40 years of music is streaming across the network to mine and my daughter’s XBox upstairs.

You may ask why go to all that trouble when I could just play the music straight from the computer? The answer is sound quality. My setup at home is actually quite simple. A cheap 42″ 3D TV (it’s a rebranded Celsus, courtesy of a phone deal). Picture quality is remarkably good for such a cheap TV with a surprisingly generous array of connections on the back. The old PC has a VGA out (10 year old graphics card that keeps soldiering on despite the cooling fan having fallen off the card years ago) which plugs straight into the TV. Sound is then ported to the TV from the headphone/speaker jack on the soundcard. While the sound is reasonable it lacks the punch of a dedicated speaker system. This is where the XBox (and my love of gaming) comes in. The Xbox is also plugged into the TV using the HD cable that comes supplied with it (the one with half a dozen coloured cables that plug into the TV’s component AV slots). As my old surround sound system decided to die when we had a power cut a few years ago sound production duties have been replaced by a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system. As the XBox also doubles as a DVD player this also enables us to watch movies with the surround sound (but not currently regular TV as the Digital Receiver plugs straight into the TV by HDMI, more on this later). The result is that streamed music now gets converted by the XBox and output to all speakers giving a much louder and punchier response. And Gears Of War 3 takes on a whole new level of gaming when viewed in 3D with surround sound.

So far of course there’s been no Apple in this mix, everything to this point has been achieved by Microsoft and 3rd party hardware. So this is where Apple and Microsoft make their match in Heaven. It’s all very well having the PC connected to the same screen as the XBox and TV Receiver, but what if you really need to make changes to something on the PC while the kids have decided now is the only time they can watch Hannah Montana. This is where we introduce PocketCloud, an iPhone and iPad app that allows you to login to your PC remotely while on the same network. Using this you have full access to all the programs and files on your PC. If you only wish to access files on your PC, such as photos and PDF documents there’s always FileBrowser instead.

And the Apple/Microsoft Heaven doesn’t just stop at your PC. There are also apps for the iPhone and iPad that will allow you to connect to your XBox remotely. Want to control your music remotely while it’s playing on the XBox? Microsoft have provided the ultimate free app for allowing this with SmartGlass. The only drawback is that it will require an XBox Live account and your XBox must already be turned on and logged in, but that’s it. Instant control via phone or iPad from anywhere in the house over wifi. Friends over and want to listen to whatever music is on their iPod, iPhone or iPad? There’s even an app for that. Download AirMusic and you’ll soon be streaming direct from your Apple device of choice to the XBox.

The above is of course quite a simple setup, done more for the low cost than for elegance. A couple of simple upgrades would improve your gaming and media pleasure at relatively low costs. The simplest upgrade is to switch out the speakers. Hard to come by nowadays, but there are surround sound systems with multiple inputs. The original surround sound speakers that I had till the power cut had stereo, coax and optical inputs, allowing me to connect 3 systems at once and switch between them. Much the same can also be done now with a HDMI receiver that combines multiple HDMI inputs with HDMI out and optical out, allowing the receiver to switch between inputs and output to a standard home theatre system. Again, this is a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade. If you’re lucky and have a slightly more expensive TV you may even find that the TV itself has an optical out for plugging direct into a home theatre, but be aware that not all output the full Dolby 5.1 (my old Samsung TV only output stereo through the optical out). If budget allows a lot of higher end Blu-Ray home theatre kits also come complete with multiple HDMI inputs allowing for much the same effect.

Should you be able to upgrade your listening pleasure using the ideas above (and having swapped out the old VGA card for a nice shiny new HDMI graphics card) you can then go for the other option of listening to your music using your PC again (leaving your XBox relegated back to gaming duties). Again, there’s an app available for this, simply download Apple’s Remote for iPhone or iPad and gain direct control of your PC’s iTunes library, even being able to choose songs to be played using iTunes Auto DJ feature.