The most difficult part of being a music critic is knowing that no matter how great the next album you listen to is, it will never be able to crack the pantheon and become one of the all-time greats. The nature of our experiences with music tells us that nostalgia is a powerful drug, as is precedent, which makes it nearly impossible for anything new to overcome the odds stacked against it. It’s an unfair position we have put modern musicians in, but it brings to mind a bigger question than merely whether they are able to make great records. It makes us stop and ask; were the classics as great as we make them out to be?
It’s easy to answer in the affirmative without thinking much about the issue, and leave it at that. It’s easy, but it’s also lazy. To properly answer the question, we need to be honest about whether or not we’ve been led to believe something that simply isn’t true. As fans, from the first time we heard music, we’ve been told which artists and albums are the great ones, and most of us have accepted the prevailing theories without questioning how the opinion was arrived at.
One of the problems we encounter is a conflation of two principles; quality and originality. Many of the classic albums we worship are the ones that blazed new trails, that broke new ground for what music could be. Whether we’re talking about The Beatles re-writing the rules of pop music, or Metallica making metal acceptable to the mainstream, innovators are often put on a pedestal. But there is a distinction that must be made that seldom is, namely that being innovative does not by itself make music good. Plenty of albums have come down the pike over the last few decades that have tread new ground, while not setting the world on fire with their greatness.
Somewhere along the line, we became confused as to what is most important, the ability to make great music, or the ability to innovate it. Innovation is a wonderful thing, and I don’t discount the importance of the people who move music forward, but innovation alone is not enough to earn the status that the classic artists and albums are afforded. Merely being the first to play an instrument in a slightly different way doesn’t grant you a lifetime of respect. That is the kind of honor that must come from a career of producing great albums time and time again.
The first wave of bands in every sub-genre are almost universally considered to be the best. There is far too much coincidence in that statement for me to believe it’s the truth. The odds of the first bands in each new style towering over all who would come after are astronomical, and I dare say impossible. The likelihood is that as a genre develops, and as bands are able to find what works and what doesn’t, the quality of the music should improve with time, not winnow.
Instead, what we see is a constant derision from fans and critics that music isn’t what it used to be, and that the new bands are pale imitations of what used to be. The second half of that statement may in fact be true, as there is something to be said about the intentional stagnation perpetrated by many bands. There are sounds from the past they want to replicate, and they happily continue to do so throughout the careers. The days of massive innovation and whole-scale originality from a large number of bands across the spectrum are in fact over, but that is not the same thing as saying the days of good music are over.
Looking back, as someone who was not there at the time to be impressed by the innovations as they occurred, it’s difficult for me to see how the idea that each genre has atrophied came about. Listening to the embryonic bands that gave rise to the specialized sounds, the common trait they all share is that they are a rough sketch of what would come later on down the line.
I can pick whichever genre I want, and that claim remains true. The fact of the matter is that the first-wave bands had not yet figured out exactly what their style was going to be, so many of the classic albums we hold dear are experiments that don’t resemble the finished product. For all the acclaim it receives, “Kill ‘Em All” is a record that would not be deemed ready for the light of day as we currently exist. It’s a rough, amateurish, in places sloppy record that bears little of the hallmark songwriting thrash would eventually be known for. Seeing the growth Metallica would go through by their next album is all the evidence needed to see that “Kill ‘Em All”, while important for its role in helping to define thrash, is nowhere near at the level needed to be a true classic.
I think it’s important to pause for a moment and re-emphasize that I certainly respect what the classic albums were able to do in terms of shaping how music would evolve in their wake. I would never try to deny the influence “Kill ‘Em All”, “Scream Bloody Gore”, “Awaken The Guardian”, or any other album of that ilk had. Their impact is undeniable, and if they were talked about as being the most important albums in metal history, no one would have any right to complain. But that’s not how they’re talked about, nor how they’re viewed. The perception isn’t just that they were the first, but that they were some of the best albums of their kind, a statement I don’t believe to be grounded in reality.
“Awaken The Guardian” is one of the landmark albums of progressive metal, one of the first albums that can rightfully wear the title. However, as progressive metal began to unfold, it wasn’t long until the album barely fit the description. While more progressive than anything else out at the time, “Awaken The Guardian” was more of an abstract take on Iron Maiden than a true progressive statement. The band themselves would undergo the same transformation as the genre, diversifying their sound, and delving ever deeper into the progressive waters. By the time they released their album-length concept piece “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray”5, “Awaken The Guardian” was but a fossil captured in the dust of time.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the initial opinions of albums like “Awaken The Guardian” have changed very little. The albums that changed the rules are still looked at with reserved awe, when there have been countless others in each style that have raised the bar for what is possible. We are slow to admit this fact, because of a function of cognitive distrust. To admit that those album are not classics in the way we have always assumed is to admit that our judgment was either created by someone else, or has been entirely wrong for as long as we can remember. None of us want to admit to being so wrong about something so important, so we convince ourselves that we were right, regardless of the evidence. It’s a phenomenon we have seen countless times in art, as well as in politics. We bend the evidence to fit our beliefs, and not the other way around.
The end result of this thinking is a form of tunnel vision, where what was once true must always be true, lest the whole thing fall like a house of cards. Rather than making up our own minds as we listen and discover, we take it on faith that the previous generation has left us an accurate account of the music scene as they left it for us, despite both the fungible nature of taste, and the unreliability of witness testimony. Listening to a previous generation’s take on music, as it compares to what came after, is a useless bit of theater. Every generation, my own included, will rightfully claim that the music they grew up listening to was as good as it got, because that was the soundtrack to the ‘best years of their lives’. Asking them to embrace the inevitable change that comes with evolution, and then be a neutral arbiter of the relative quality of the following generation, is a task that can’t be rightfully expected.
I know from experience that this is true, as I have succumbed to the bitter realization that time does not allow us to grow along with the music scene. I have watched bands I once love adopt the sounds of progress, only to find that I could no longer go along with them, because they had betrayed my expectations6. Likewise, the bands that have arisen in their ashes are alien to me, as I cannot understand their appeal. We are all creatures of our time, and trying to be anything but will ultimately wind up being intellectually dishonest.
What the classic albums have in common is that they all benefit from having impeccable timing. There’s a reason why the first wave of bands in every genre become the best known and most successful. There are a limited number of slots at the top level of acclaim, and once they are filled up, rarely does anyone fall back to a lower tier.
Bands who are lucky enough to hit at the right time never have to worry about their futures. Queensryche has spent the better part of two decades disappointing fans over and over again, releasing albums that are loathed by the majority of their fans7. Despite this, they not only managed to continue selling out concerts during that period, but were never downgraded as one of the best progressive metal bands of all time. The thoughts are incongruous, yet they exist. If a band could have half of their career ridiculed for the embarrassment it has caused, they should not be allowed to be considered a great band, let alone one of the best. I consider it an indictment of the fans that we allow bands to get away with such chasms in their careers without reassessing their overall merits.
“Operation: Mindcrime” is a landmark moment in heavy metal history, but it’s one that has puzzled me from the start. As one of the first well-known concept albums, its role cannot be denied. Every metal band that has made a concept album since owes a great deal to the success Queensryche was able to find with it. However, the album itself is a testament to how the world of music has changed, and how our opinions have not changed along with it.
Even the most self-involved of concept albums needs to have a set of songs to carry it. What “Operation: Mindcrime” does is illustrate a time when metal bands were not yet attuned to the need to write actual songs. Metal was a new enough entity at the time that it could still get away with selling the power and heaviness, while neglecting the bits that actually make music enjoyable. Listening to “Operation: Mindcrime” all these years later, it comes across as a half-baked album that is more story than music. Everything about the music exists solely to progress the story, and without knowing the plot, the album is a tuneless slog through everything wrong with metal in the 80s.
The only thing the album had going for it is timing. “Operation: Mindcrime” was the first of its kind, and because of our internal bias towards innovation, it has benefited from an unhealthy coat of white-wash. It is not alone, however, as many of the classic albums of the day can have the same thing said about them. Release “Black Metal”, or “Images & Words”, or “Sad Wings Of Destiny” today, and they would get tepid reactions, if not laughed at. The truth is that metal has become more polished, and more proficient, to the point where the songwriting ability of the average band is nearly on par with that of the best of yesteryear. Originality may be waning, but the sheer skill bands possess to make music is higher than its ever been.
We seldom want to admit this, because is calls into question the countless hours we have invested in our favorite records. I struggle with this thought myself, the idea that the music I have poured so much of myself into is no better than the next disposable album I listen to. The answer isn’t simple either. What we have to do is something I have found myself capable of, but not many others have; compartmentalization. In my mind, I can separate the ideas of great music and my favorite music8. I am able to listen to music and switch between a critical observation of it, and listening as a fan.
Music doesn’t have to be great for me to love it, although it does help. I can listen to albums that I know are fundamentally flawed, and yet love them because they stir a feeling inside me. Likewise, I can listen to albums that are expertly crafted, yet evoke nothing in me. Perhaps if we all could better differentiate between the meanings of the words ‘best’ and ‘favorite’, we would have a more accurate assessment of the musical landscape.
But first, we need to differentiate between ‘important’ and ‘great’, because our confusion has created a situation where generations are being indoctrinated with false beliefs, and bands that don’t deserve to are able to ride the wave of history. Faith can be a benefit, but only when it’s placed in an entity that deserves it. The opinions of music fans of the past are not one of those times when faith is well-served. We would be better off, as a community, if we took a step back and looked at things with open eyes. Hindsight can be a powerful cleanser, and the time has come for a structural reorganization of the pantheon of metal history.