Maybe I’m just getting too old for this shit (and maybe I should stop watching action movies as I write), but I also think I’m correct in saying that a current trend in ‘music’ I keep on hearing and seeing is the equivalent of a dumpster baby. You hear about it far too often and it baffles you that something that awful can happen with such frequency in a modern society. What caused this old man rant? Well since you asked…
Today, I was checking the news on Absolutepunk.net, and it mentioned a new band was signed to Rise Records called Crown The Empire. I decided to take a gander and was promptly treated to the latest in a current trend of bands that are pretty much bastardizing everything that is good about heavy music. Sorry, Crown the Empire, this isn’t your fault. I don’t mean to pick on you; you’re probably excited to be signed to a record label, something my band never accomplished, so you’re doing something right. I’m sure you’re nice lads, and I’m sure you spent hours in your garages and bedrooms learning how to play your instruments, selling tickets to backyard shows, all that DIY stuff bands do to ‘make it’ in a terrible climate for ‘making it’. What I can’t seem to figure out is why you would take all that hard work and then proceed to play the most antiseptic, emotionally barren, and boring brand of music I have heard in recent memory. Crown The Empire is not the issue though, it’s just that you were the straw, and now the camel’s back is irreparable. So here goes my attempt to answer the question: how in the hell did we wind up here? I like music that is heavy with screaming. I like music that is light, fun, and poppy. I even like music that combines the two (with keyboards even *gasp). That’s not what you’re doing, what you are doing is different for some reason, and I’m willing to go down this rabbit hole to find out what it is.
Part #1 Vocals: The first band I ever heard with screaming in it was Snapcase. It was on cassette in my friend Nick’s car and I hated it. I told him that this wasn’t music and I didn’t see the point of all the screaming. Smash cut to my first hardcore show a year later at Chain Reaction where No Innocent Victim was playing. It clicked that night for the first time; the screaming went so well with the high energy guitars and drumming and when you see it played live, for some reason it all makes sense. So I got into a few screaming bands like Shai Hulud, Zao, and Strongarm (they were on the melodic side I know), but I still mostly liked the skate punk. I remember the next part like it was yesterday. In ’98 I was riding in my friend Joel’s truck on the 405 Southbound, passing the Westminster exit, when I heard Cave In’s song ‘Crossbearer.’ The song was good, but what floored me was the use of clean vocals in the bridge. I never knew you could sing in a hardcore song. It was mind blowing to me: singing and screaming in the same song? How unique. It sounds kind of funny nearly 15 years later to say that, but back then it was a different time. Eventually Cave In would drop the screaming entirely, only to pick it back up again years later, but I digress.
Not a lot of bands clued in on this majestic amalgam of sounds. There was the original ‘screamo’ (now called ‘skramz’) movement, but that was not so much singing as screaming over hardcore/punk/noise riffs sans the heavy distortion on the guitar. I seriously doubt that any of the current ‘scenecore’ (I guess that’s what we’re calling it) bands were raised on a diet of Pg.99, Swing Kids, or City of Caterpillar. Personally, I would attribute a lot of the trailblazing towards fusing the two vocal stylings to Refused, but when you ask most over 25’s on the issue of who started singing and screaming in the same songs, I’m willing to bet that many would say either Thursday or Thrice.
Thursday took the emo/punk scene by storm by being so incredibly honest; so personal that you couldn’t help but fall under the spell cast by Geoff Rickly, but what really helped make Thursday seem so unique was all of that heart wrenching screaming side by side with clean vocals. Thrice, who were so good at moving between the heavy vocals and clean you hardly even noticed, burst onto the scene at around the same time. They took a different approach, weaving metal with punk sensibilities, but it was good and interesting. Finch was probably the closest band of the era to this current scenecore movement due to the brutal screams coupled with clean vocals, and a heavy dose of melodic music to go with it. You can’t really take Finch to task though, because A) What it is to Burn is a great album, B) they were just enamoured with The Deftones and you can hardly fault them for that, and C) they made it their own at a time when there were very few bands with that sound. With the rise of these bands, singing and screaming have started to co-exist all over the place, and most of the time it is fine, because it can be done well. Juxtaposing the two is definitely not a problem as long as you forge new territory in your music and it comes naturally. Much like anything that requires a shade of nuance, when you force it, it falls flat.
So back we come to the current trend. I believe when Attack Attack came out and got some positive attention it signified the beginning of the end. They combined the most brOOtal screams and breakdowns (more on that later) with music that was about as pop as it gets…like boy-band pop…with electronics and synthesizers. But hey, like ‘em, or hate ‘em, they were the first, or at least the first to gain my attention and disdain. It was what followed that just got so much worse. My main problem is that the singers in these bands can neither sing nor scream. The clean vocals are auto-tuned and pitch corrected so much that they aren’t even disguising the fact anymore. Not being able so sing, so badly that a computer has to fix it for you, has become a ‘thing’. If you like it, that’s fine, but let’s not call it music. Music is something humans make using their voice or an instrument – this is made by computers and is being passed off as real. Secondly, the screams are also beefed up to maximize their brOOtality, which you can hear in the recording as well. Listen to any of these real screams and you can tell that the sound is actually coming out of a person. The key is in the subtle inflections and imperfections that come from a real soft palette, not a sound processor. It’s nothing new to beef up a scream (Fall Out Boy did it forever ago, skip to 2:25), but when its the mainstay of your sound, it’s just coming off as artificial and cheap. You can hear that the voice has no character because it is being manipulated through a computer. Much like how people with too much plastic surgery all start to look the same, all of these bands pop out of the scenecore machine sounding the same, and it gets boring pretty damn fast.
Part #2 The Music: Ugh, after doing the research on this music I’m feeling drained and really depressed, so lets skip the long history of breakdowns and talk about what’s wrong. But first, an analogy. I like Whiskey. I like the taste and the way it feels to have a double at the pub on a Friday after teaching all week. It gives me a nice little buzz to unwind after a long week of trying to teach science to ungrateful brats over here in England. How should I keep that nice buzz going? Maybe I should have another 2 shots, maybe I should have 4 or 8 more, which would make me feel 4 or 8 times as good right? You know what I’m getting at here right? Breakdowns are best when they are worked for, and in moderation. It would be different if I was having that drink at 8am on Monday, or if I drank all day. The same thing goes for breakdowns. They’re good fun when you build towards them, but pure chugging, whether it be alcohol or breakdowns, isn’t good for anyone. Another analogy would be that breakdowns are like empty calories, or that breakdowns are like 3-D in movies, or that breakdowns are like watching someone get hit in the nuts on America’s Funniest Home Videos, or that breakdowns are like breakdowns. When you overdo it, they lose what makes them good. They start to sound the same, and worst of all you’ll start to garner hate from the people who actually buy albums and like music. These bands are making music for kids with ADHD; not the kids with real, chemical imbalance ADHD, the kind that comes from being raised by a TV/Video game. They need a breakdown, a cool synth part, a super catchy chorus, back to the breakdown, oh oh look at our haircuts, break down, flashing lights, and on and on and on in quick succession. There’s something wrong with this. You’re are making music for 13-14 year-old children who will soon grow out of it, or stupid people who will just hop on the next trend. Is this sustainable in any way? Or are you also one of those distracted kids who refuses to think about the long term? You likely have one shot at this whole music thing, and this is what you choose to do with it? You’re pandering to an audience who probably won’t stick around to see your sophmore release. Also, let’s survey the bands that have ‘made it’ with something vaguely reminiscent of this sound. Look at Underoath, they moved on to a much better and ultimately more gratifying sound. Look at The Devil Wears Prada, they were headed down this road (more or less), but decided that it wasn’t worth it, and started making more interesting, technically proficient music. They are proof positive that it can be done, but must be done quickly, or else it’s going to last about as long as that proverbial fart on a windy day.
Part #3 The Image: All right, some are worse that others on this. I will say that if your band needs an image, go back to the drawing board and write more interesting music. For those with the neon clothes and the crazy scene haircuts, I want to ask a question: Do you remember Flock of Seagulls? Unless we learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Just take a moment, think…. think a little more, and please, please don’t do this to yourself. I promise if you ever reach an above 80 IQ, you’ll be embarrassed. Take it from me, I went to a few raves when I got to college and man did I look like an idiot on those 3 occasions. Now with that said, the only person I grant a pass to is that dude from Black Veil Brides (edit: I no longer agree with this statement. PASS IS REVOKED, Total Douche). What??? I hear you say, why him, he’s the biggest douche of all. Now, I don’t like his band, in any way, not even as a guilty pleasure, but I have seen an interview or two with him and he’s kind of well spoken, and obviously educated. Yup, I genuinely believe him when he says it’s not an act and that he’s been theatrical in his appearance his entire life. He understands why people think he looks ridiculous, but says he thinks it looks cool which is why he does it, and I respect that (edit: not anymore). Every other band I saw in an interview just does the standard “Yeah, whatever man, we don’t care what people think, and they can go to hell” bratty response. It is not only stereotypical, but they usually sound dumb saying it, and I know that vacant look from a mile away, I see it frequently when my lesson hits a vocab word over 3 syllables. I suppose its a good thing that they don’t care though, because if they did, they probably would have committed suicide by now, so being unaffected must be a douchey survival instinct. Also, can we stop with all the jumping, pogo-ing, and dancing in your video’s? It’s stupid, don’t do it. And finally, we know you like to party, but you don’t have to shove your one defining characteristic down everyone’s throats all the time. It’s not that special to want to party all the time; most junkies and burn-outs felt the same way at one point. I know you want to live it up while you’re young, but tread lightly, youth doesn’t last forever. If you put all of you eggs in one basket, place said basket on a house of cards, and then do some other analogous cliche, all the while thinking things will work out, you will be in for a serious surprise.
Well that’s it, that’s all. I’ve probably devoted way too much time to this, and listened to way too much of this music in the last 24hrs. Let’s hope that this all ends soon and all those kids lose interest in this current sonic equivalent to something shiny. But hey, at least things can’t get much worse …..or Can They?