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Posts Tagged ‘Dream Theater’

This discussion might be somewhat mooted by the widespread availability of a band’s entire catalog online at the click of a few .zip links, but it used to be the case that if you wanted to dig into the work of a artist that was new to you, you had to just out and buy the record.  Couple that with this particular writer’s having gotten into metal without the influence of friends, or older siblings, or tape trading or ‘zines or anything else that might have given some pointers on the best albums with which to dive into an unknown band’s vast oeuvre, and you wind up with what look like, in retrospect, some pretty fucking wacky starting points.

Allow me to illustrate:

Yup, my copy's even got that stupid wrinkled-looking cover sleeve

The first Megadeth record I bought and listened to was 1997’s Cryptic Writings, a widely-panned shitstorm of wimped-out radio-friendly “thrash”-rock.  Okay, so maybe it’s not the complete disaster of Risk, but it’s really a fairly awful album.  The first couple of singles for the album received heavy radio play, though, and my teenaged self thought, “Hey, this sounds pretty alright.”  I got the record, didn’t play it too much, and probably wound up selling it years later.  The miracle is, then, that I ever managed to get into Megadeth “for real.”  I think I eventually stumbled on a used copy of Countdown to Extinction, which rekindled my interest in the band, and as my appetite for metal compelled into more research, I inevitably found my way into the band’s first four classic albums.

So, there are actually two points in my mind about that: Number one, how shitty is it if you stumble upon a band just at the time that they happen to release one of their all-time poorest showings?  What if I had never recovered from the bland shock of Cryptic Writings?  “Hangar 18” could still be sitting out there in the distance, far outside my realm of awareness, screaming and thrashing and raging for all the world to be heard, but to no avail.  Second, though: What if your first encounter with a band is with their far and away best album?  To stick with the Megadeth example, what if your first Megadeth album was Rust In Peace?  (I know metaldom’s opinion is somewhat split as to the extent by which RIP outstrips Peace Sells, Killing…, So Far…, etc., but to these ears it’s not even a close competition – Rust In Peace smokes everything else Mustaine et al put to wax by a wide country mile.)  From that point on, everything’s going to be a letdown.  You can dig into the band’s past to trace the roots of that miraculous album, and you can follow where its success took the band, and even where its dulcet tones stoked the fires for other bands, but that initial, revelatory experience is essentially never to be reclaimed.

(On a short aside, I’m pretty certain that my first Metallica album was Load.  By most counts, that would be a fairly disastrous starting point for Metallica’s discography, but since Metallica seems to be the one actual metal band that gets a free pass on most hard rock radio, I grew up hearing enough of the band’s real baroque thrash output that I could recognize Load for the stylistic turn for the worse that it certainly was.  Therefore, I wasn’t turned off, and quickly acquired Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and everything else.)

It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Even though Reign In Blood is generally accepted as Slayer’s finest hour (though I think there’s probably a case to be made for South Of Heaven as the better record; still, it’s tough to dispute RIB’s historic status), I don’t think someone getting into Slayer with RIB would necessarily be at the same disadvantage as someone getting into Megadeth with RIP.  Thing is, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly why that is.  I suppose it’s probably because I don’t see as huge a gap in terms of quality between Hell AwaitsReign In BloodSouth Of Heaven as I do between So Far…Rust In PeaceCountdown to Extinction.  That having been said, my first Slayer album was actually Divine Intervention, which is kind of a weird spot to drop into the discography, but not as confusing as, say, Undisputed Attitude or God Hates Us All would be.

On that same note, the first albums that I acquired by Opeth, Darkthrone, and Dream Theater were Blackwater Park, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, and Scenes From A Memory, respectively.  None of those three albums necessarily has a consensus as to being the band’s all-time greatest, but there’s enough critical praise behind each one that they could have been potentially standard-setting albums.  And in fact, each one likely remains my favorite album by each band.  Nevertheless, I have subsequently acquired every single album by all three bands, and haven’t felt the same sense of inevitable resignation that I think I would have felt had I stumbled across Rust In Peace before Cryptic Writings.

I wonder if the extent to which one experiences these weird starting points is mostly dependent on whether the band in question has produced any truly oddball albums.  Like, this whole conversation doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about Motörhead or, to take a fairly timely example, Amon Amarth.  You can hate or love the band, and you can certainly make distinctions in quality between albums by each band, but neither band has produced any albums that are so radically different from the rest of its canon that a listener stumbling across them would be fed an entirely wrong perception of other albums.

On the other hand, a band like Boris or the Melvins would seem to buck this trend for precisely the opposite reason: both bands do enough experimentation and total stylistic shifts (more so with Boris than the Melvins, to be sure) that neither band necessarily has any good or bad starting points.  Instead, most starting points are probably equally strange, or at least sit reasonably well at odds with the bulk of the band’s other albums.

That having been said, here are just a couple of other strange discographic starting points in which I’ve found myself embroiled:

Don't care what you say; Cradle's never come up with a better pun

At the time, I had never heard of Cradle Of Filth, so I’m not even entirely sure what motivated me to pick up this album (I assume it wasn’t the horrifically garish cover art).  More importantly, though, I had no idea that this was a completely strange stop-gap release between albums, comprised of a few new tunes, a couple of new ambient/classical interludes, a Sisters of Mercy cover, and some rerecorded songs from Cradle’s debut album, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh.  I enjoyed this release enough, though, to continue on and work both backwards and forwards, and Cradle Of Filth remains an entirely guilt-free guilty pleasure to this day.

Who thought this cover was a good idea?

So, yeah, that album art is a nasty ol’ piece of shit.  The album’s actually pretty good, though, but if you’ve heard it and any of Septic Flesh’s other material, you know it’s an odd spot at which to first dip one’s toes in the Greek metallers’ waters.  It’s a strange hybrid electro-death metal trip, and the band has never really delved in the same dirges again.  Seems like this would be a band that you’d either get into from the earliest black metal albums and follow them through, or else you’d be better served starting off with Sumerian Daemons and just working on from there.

——————————

So, what about you?  Have you had any similar experiences, either with getting into a band with a completely fucked-up, non-representative album, or with getting into a band with their far and away best album?  Or, more generally, when you know you want to investigate a band that’s new to you, do you have a particular strategy?  Do you start with the most recent album and work backward?  Do you start from the beginning and move to the present?  Do you first reach to the most widely-acclaimed album to see if it does anything for you, and only after that point reach both forward and backward if you like what you hear?

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In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately.  A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964.  One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members.  The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”

This is a band set to 'slow burn'

Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe.  I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track).  But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).


If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble.  All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.

Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal.  The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo.  We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.

Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal.  In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another.  A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song.  It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework.  The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.

Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities.  I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes.  In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.

Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back.  Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece.  The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes.  Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes.  Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone.  After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close.  By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.

But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice.  The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members.  I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break.  See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it.  When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?

The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation.  There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other.  Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments.  Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points.  It goes on like this.  The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars.  Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right.  If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles.  Balance is lost.  The nays have it.

To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation.  Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace.  You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point.  I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan.  What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.

If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal.  The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth.  Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal.  When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.

Jamey Jasta's Seven Habits for Highly Effective Backstabber Overcomers

For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else).  The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz.  Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining.  Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ‘1’ remains a more important signifier than the number ‘2’), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.

As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity.  I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess.  Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights.  It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.

Sorry for not giving a shit about Van Halen

Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up.  I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity.  Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently.  Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak.  That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band.  I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play).  Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.

This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains.  It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit.  A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.

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Hello, friends.  Not too much is shaking ’round Spinal Tapdance HQ today, but I was thinking that maybe I’d like to send a mixtape to each and every one of you.  But then, of course, real life intrudes.  Logistics, &c.  The mind boggles.

So, please accept this poor substitute; namely, a “mixtape” in the form of a whole mess of YouTube links.  Still, these are some of the jams that have been helping me beat the heat around here.  Enjoy!

1. Amorphis – “The Castaway” (1994)

2. Dream Theater – “Stargazer” (Rainbow Cover) (2009, original 1976)

3. Sleep – “Dragonaut” (1993)

4. Unearthly Trance – “God Is A Beast” (2008)

5. Swans – “I Remember Who You Are” (1989)

6. Devin Townsend – “Material” (2000)

7. Madder Mortem – “Formaldehyde” (2009)

8. Anaal Nathrakh – “Do Not Speak” (2004)

9. Neurosis – “Locust Star” (1996)

10. Nick Drake – “Cello Song” (1970)

Please have a (mostly) Very Heavy Metal Wednesday.

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Hello, friends.  I hope that you are well, off in your corner of the internet.  Things are off to a bit of a slow start this Monday morning at Spinal Tapdance HQ, as your humble narrator recovers from last night’s heavy metal ass-kicking courtesy of Dream Theater and Iron Maiden.

Dream Theater’s opening set was relatively short and to-the-point, dealing mostly with the harder-edged, less progressive tracks from their most recent albums (“As I Am,” “A Rite Of Passage,” “Constant Motion,” and “Panic Attack,” with a tasteful rendering of “Home” providing the only real “epic” track), with only “Pull Me Under” closing out the show to great acclaim from the old-school fans.  Jordan Rudess on the keytar battling John Petrucci’s guitar wizardry was manna from heavy metal heaven, and James LaBrie busted out some of his gruffer vocals to suit the no-nonsense material.  Killer stuff from one of the most universally-talented bands in all of music.

Iron Maiden, of course, was IRON FUCKING MAIDEN.  I know there’s been quite a lot of grumbling ’round the internet about the setlist for the current tour (of which Chicago was the second-to-last stop).  Many folks have complained that the set is too focused on Maiden’s post-millennial output, which is absolutely true (only six of sixteen tracks would likely be considered “classic” Maiden), but I for one thought the set was fantastic.  It basically goes without saying at this point, but Bruce Dickinson is perhaps the most energetic frontman in the history of metal, and his theatrics and humor presumably won over even those fans who were less familiar with Maiden’s post-reunion-with-Bruce output.

Here’s what they played (which has two alterations from what was posted on Iron Maiden’s official tour website, but I think this has been the case throughout these U.S. dates):

1. The Wicker Man
2. Ghost of the Navigator
3. Wrathchild
4. El Dorado
5. Dance of Death
6. The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg
7. These Colours Don’t Run
8. Blood Brothers
9. Wildest Dreams
10. No More Lies
11. Brave New World
12. Fear of the Dark
13. Iron Maiden

Encore:

14. The Number of the Beast
15. Hallowed Be Thy Name
16. Running Free

Obviously, it was the classic tunes that elicited the most drunkenly exuberant response, but several of these newer tracks came off really well live.  “No More Lies” was especially improved; I actually really dig the song on Dance of Death, but it’s a bit too long (like many of the songs on that record) and labored.  Blast that tune in the sweltering summer heat to thousands upon thousands of metalheads, and it’s one hell of a shout-a-long.

I know there’s been a fair bit of griping, too, about the first single to be released from Maiden’s upcoming album (The Final Frontier), “El Dorado,” and yeah, I get it.  It’s a little weak for a single, and Bruce’s vocals sound a bit strained (we can only hope that it’s an issue of mixing, especially since his vocals were in stellar form last night).  Thankfully, though, in a live setting, the band sped it up significantly, meaning that the choruses came and went quickly without grating (as they do in the recorded version).  I still can’t quite jive with “Benjamin Breeg,” but basically everything else went down a real storm.

All in all, a magnificently entertaining performance by a completely unfuckwithable, world-class band.

Also contributing to the need for recovery was my (admittedly odd) decision to blast Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz at extreme volume while driving home from the concert.  Anyone out there who’s been losing their shit lately to the double-drumming acrobatics of the metallic likes of Kylesa and Melvins (w/Big Business) really ought to check this out right quick.  Coleman’s take on free jazz isn’t as mesmerizingly dense as Coltrane’s Ascension, but the greater sense of space allows the lightning-sharp communication between the two groups (Coleman is billed here as leading a ‘double quartet’, with one group mixed in each speaker) to come through like the inerrant voice of God striking down the wayward and the unrighteous.

I’m off to continue nursing myself back to health after nearly overdosing on pure rock fury.  Have a pleasant day, and hey, why not play some Iron Maiden while you’re at it?

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Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Whether we understand it as a fetishization of the past, or a wistful historicization of one’s own present, there is no denying the ability of our brains to gather up disparate circumstances and stray thoughts into these gauzy-edged bundles of nostalgia.  I think this might be part of the reason why one of our reactions to nostalgia is always some form of embarrassment; nostalgia represents one of those many mental states which escape the realm of our mastery.

Nostalgia, in some ungraspable way, targets us at precisely those points of our character which our pride and self-consciousness have worked so assiduously to protect.  You might even say that nostalgia is the anti-irony, or at least that which destroys irony’s pretense to humorous detachment.

Thus, I don’t expect that one need be a devoted Proustian to recognize the ability of the smallest thing to send one off in transports of fond or fell recollection, and that this ability is both an asset and a ridiculous nuisance.  An asset, because it mythologizes our own lives and grants them a heightened significance through tactile memory; a nuisance, then, because of the way it taunts and reminds us of those good and glorious days, never again to return.

Anyway, the point of all of this maudlin rambling is really just to segue into something that I’ve been feeling somewhat nostalgic for recently; namely, the absolutely blind acquisition of new music.

It used to be – “back in the good old days,” of course – when I was starting to explore more types of music (my early teenage years being largely devoted to ), that every now and then I would be browsing through a record store (early on, more likely to be a Best Buy than anything more street-cred-worthy, but hey, I grew up in the suburbs, so cut me some slack) and would come across something completely random and unknown to me, and just buy it anyway.

Now, in all likelihood, I’m sure I had some sort of unformed estimated-guess-work cranking itself out in the back of my mind, but still, these were, for all intents and purpose, bands whose names were totally foreign to me, and whose music I had never encountered.  You can sort of picture me, then, as an awkward, teenaged version of the compulsive, inveterate gambler, clutching a palmful of sweaty tickets at the horse track, always more and more sure that the next one was the one, this next one will be the last one, the big one, the promised one.

Which is to say, I imagine that in some small way I became addicted to the thrill of discovering new and wonderful music, no matter the attendant risk of shelling out hard(-ish)-earned money on some total fucking bullshit (Papa Roach, I still haven’t forgiven you for coaxing me into buying that first record of yours…).

Here’s a brief list, then, of some of the more notable albums that I can remember purchasing with absolutely no prior knowledge of what fresh hell or new bliss was in store:

– Cradle of Filth, Bitter Suites to Succubi.  I know, I know; for most of the metal community out there, this is hardly something to crow about.  I can absolutely fucking guarantee, though, that every metalhead out there has a gateway band which, no matter how embarrassing your complete love affair over them may seem in retrospect, was still the band responsible for opening new vistas of musical possibility.  Cradle of Filth was that band for me* – they were the first extreme metal band I saw live, and this was on a tour where Nile opened for them (Black Seeds of Vengeance had just come out), which fostered a huge interest in death metal.

*Well, after Metallica, I guess, which played a similar role much earlier on, but I suspect Metallica played such a half-initiatory role for many kids, inasmuch as they received widespread radio play.  Metallica wasn’t quite the band to tip me into extreme metal, though, which probably has a lot to do with timing; by which I mean, basically, that getting into Metallica circa 1996 or so (as it was with me) is a hell of a lot different than getting into Metallica circa 1982.

– Anathema, Judgement.  I picked this one up, actually, at the same time as the Cradle of Filth record, which had just come out in Europe, where I was traveling at the time.  I’m pretty sure this was at some major chain-type place (HMV, maybe, but this was quite some time ago), and, though the fog of adolescent memory is not to be trusted, I’m fairly sure there was a whole Peaceville highlighting display endcap there, with all that great early 90s death/doom stuff, plus the At The Gates reissues that Peaceville was doing at the time.

– Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.  Holy shit, was this one of those finds which just blew me the fuck away.  I’m pretty sure they just hooked me with the relatively simple cover art.

– Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part.  So, sure, it’s probably like the most emo-est of all the emo Nick Cave albums, but it completely rules, and I can’t believe I hadn’t listened to any Nick Cave before buying this record.

– Jimmy Eat World, Clarity.  Fuck you, this album rules.

– Dream Theater, Scenes from a Memory.  Can you say “game changer”?  I should probably confess that when I was considering buying this album (from my local Best Buy, I definitely remember), I had a pretty good hunch that this was a metal band.  At that point, though, I wasn’t quite canny enough to think of things like checking to see what record label had released an album (though since DT was on a major, I guess it wouldn’t have done much in this case).

– Opeth, Blackwater Park.  Again, based on the artwork, I had a slight inkling (but certainly a desperate hope) that this might be heavy metal, but really had no idea the total and utter ass-kicking that awaited.

– The Dresden Dolls, The Dresden Dolls.  At this point, I was getting a little more sophisticated, because I remember hearing that The Dresden Dolls were going on tour opening for Nine Inch Nails, and that their album was out on Roadrunner, which I knew, by that point, was a metal label.  Someone dogmatically looking for metal, however, would have obviously found him- or herself sorely disappoint with this punk cabaret act (who totally kick your ass and mine, and pretty much established all the right bona fides by covering Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” – and Fugazi – “Blueprint” – when I saw them live a few years back).

– Rosetta, The Galilean Satellites.  This is probably the most recent (and maybe one of the only in recent years) example of making a more or less blind purchase of an album.  The fact that this was pretty much a blind acquisition is corroborated by the fact that I didn’t discover until months later that these two discs were actually meant to be played simultaneously, rather than as one album of jammin’ post-whatever-metal and one album of static, weird ambient bits, and space noises.  I still kinda like it that way, though.

So, yeah, I’m guilty of being totally nostalgic and self-indulgent about this.  Finding these remarkable new (to me) artists was a fantastic thrill, which felt all the more personal and triumphant because there wasn’t really anyone to share the credit.  It was just me, stomping around a few places in the Twin Cities (that’s Minnesota, folks) with my palpitating heart and my pockets full of as much disposable income as I could come by, and then racing home, and breathlessly ripping through the packaging and putting it on the stereo and, I’m sure, muttering futile and fevered incantations that my time and money would not have been wasted.

The whole point is, this doesn’t happen any longer.  I’m sure there are a whole mess of factors influencing this.  I’m older, so I’ve just been listening to and reading about music for a lot longer by now.  I’ve basically taught myself a ton of the history of various genres, so I can understand how you get from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Megadeth to Morbid Angel to Emperor to Anaal Nathrakh, and on and on.  Apart from brand new bands, it’s pretty unlikely that I come across an act that I know absolutely nothing about, or at least can’t make a few educated guesses based on what country they’re from, what label they’re on, what their songs are called, and whatever else.

This points, obviously, to another major difference: the ubiquity of great reference sources on the internet.  I’m obviously not old enough to bullshit you with some story about “the time before the internet,” but I was going through this phase of adolescent music exploration in the mid-1990s, when painfully slow dial-up connections and, y’know, like GeoCities and shit were the currency of the day.  I probably could have found more information than I had at my disposal if I had really tried, but I just didn’t have the sheer breadth of information at my fingertips that I do today.

A corollary to that, then, is that the music industry itself is so massively saturated these days.  This is an old and tired refrain, I know, but what it essentially means is that, precisely because there is such a massive amount of information available, I am exceedingly unlikely to take a risk on buying up something about which I have literally heard nothing.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the prevalence of music downloading, which I don’t really want to get into; suffice it say, though, that when I started buying music on my own, you didn’t really have the ability (or, at least, I didn’t have the technological sophistication) to download an album wholesale to see if you might like it.  It seems likely that no one accustomed to the instant gratification world of downloading can ever really have that same thrill, that moment of anticipation where you wait for the music to peal out of your speakers, tolling out the worthiness of your instincts.

I’m sure there are a number of other factors contributing to this nostalgia, but the bottom line is, I’m pretty bummed out that I will probably never feel that same way about going out to purchase new music.  I suppose I could try to artificially recreate some of those earlier circumstances, but that, I fear, is the great lure of nostalgia, and the only reward for which can be nostalgia’s poisonous doppelganger, disappointment.

I’m embarrassed now, not just by the sheer joy I remember experiencing, but also by how much I miss that feeling; and also, moreover, by the pure, unadulterated consumerism into which I wholeheartedly threw my adolescent self, and am now eulogizing like some herald of a great extinction.

I guess if there’s anything useful to be gained from dwelling on nostalgia, it’s that no matter how mortifyingly embarrassing your current self may find aspects of your former self, there’s no getting to the one without going through the other.

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