Sometimes, you reach a point when you realize you’re just….done. And now, I’m just plain done listening to musicians complain. Amateurs complain about how people don’t support the “scene”, or woefully contemplate why they aren’t breaking through when the truth is that they aren’t contributing anything special or innovative. I am done hearing mid-level bands bitch about how band “X” is inexplicably selling tons of records and selling out shows, but they can’t even land a decent support slot. “That band sucks! We crush them! I don’t get it.” Damn right, you don’t get it. I am really done listening to rich rock stars of yesteryear’s glory days whine about downloading and how kids today have ruined the music industry.
Whether you are in a local band trying to build any kind of audience, or in a signed, touring, established act trying to stay afloat in constantly changing times, or a millionaire dejected that music alone will not afford you that 2nd vacation home or 3rd Bentley, I’ve noticed that musicians do lots of fucking complaining. Maybe it’s a rock and metal thing. You guys love complaining so much, that people complain for me. After I wrote my piece about the demise of NWOAHM, several people scoffed at the idea that I postulated that maybe God Forbid wasn’t good enough. I didn’t say we weren’t, but just entertained the possibility that we weren’t. They have to assert a lack of fairness is built into the system so that the truly “great” bands will be periodically overlooked. That sounds like Conspiracy Theory 101 to me.
For some reason or another, no metal website asked me for my top albums list this year, so I figured I would release the list on my own. I should probably include a few disclaimers beforehand: First, I listed my favorite albums that I have listened to in the last year, not necessarily the albums that were released within the calendar year of 2014. Secondly, this was a really great year for music and heavy music in particular, and frankly I just didn’t have time to check out everything. I know Machine Head and Slipknot and many other bands put out killer records, but it would be disingenuous to put them on my list when I haven’t really dug in and spent time with the albums like I would like to. Thirdly, I am listing my favorite albums regardless of genre. There are two kinds of music: good and bad.
10. Killer Be Killed – Killer Be Killed
Supergroups rarely pan out how we hope they will. Killer Be Killed is one of the few exceptions where the end product is the perfect meeting point of what you envision the individual artists will bring to the table based on their original band’s influence. The meat and potatoes of the music is more Sepultura than anything, but I suspect Greg Pusciato on 2nd guitar had a hand in reinforcing the modernized thrash direction. In an era of musicians striving for brainy, cold instrumental and computational perfection, it was refreshing to hear something that just crushed inside your gut. Visceral and joyous.
9. Nothing More – Nothing More
I first heard of this band when Metalsucks.net posted a blog attempting to shit on the band. I checked it out and was blown away. It sounded a bit like some of the more radio-oriented “Active Rock” that is so common these days, but there was something next level about this band. When people ask me what Nothing More sound like, I say Mars Volta meets Sevendust. I am patting myself on the back for such an accurate description as I type this. This album is pretty good, but they have one GREAT song, “This Is The Time (Ballast)”. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
8. Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion
Although I had listened to this record a bit earlier in the summer, I didn’t fully appreciate this album until my friend Luke began playing it on repeat, and I became hooked. I feel like genre titles can often be used as weapons to discredit bands. Animals as Leaders is so much above a limiting genre name like “Djent”. The musicianship is obviously in an elite stratosphere, but the playing rarely feels self indulgent. These are compositions that take us on an emotional journey. For me, it hearkens back to Steve Vai’s Alien Love Secrets, which was my gold standard for virtuosic instrumental guitar albums.
7. Opeth – Pale Communion
Opeth are one of a few bands that, for the vast majority of their career, every creative move made was unimpeachable. They could do no wrong. None of us could argue with Mikael’s genius. Admittedly though, I didn’t really like Heritage. It wasn’t bad music per se. It just seemed noodly, aloof, and lacked the hooks and somber quality of what we think of as Opeth. Pale Communion isn’t any heavier or metallic than Heritage, but it just feels more like Opeth. Which is just that…a feeling. The atmosphere they create is so distinct, to be in it is intoxicating if you are a true fan. They are masters of creating that feeling.
6. In Search of Sun – The World is Yours
I get sent lots of music from bands via social media; Links to Bandcamps, Reverbnation sites, Soundcloud, and Youtube clips of up and comers. I try to listen to everything. Surprisingly, most stuff is good, but rarely great. In Search of Sun’s manager sent me one of these links to the title track “The World Is Yours”, and I was blown away. It’s a heavy metal hit. If you aren’t listening to this band, you are fucking up. To me, they are 2014’s Twelve Foot Ninja. Not that they sound like 12FN, but they are on a similar trajectory of doing something dynamic, fresh, with tremendous command of their craft, and still remembered to write an actual song. It’s an antidepressant in a world of downer metal.
5. Wovenwar – Wovenwar
I almost feel like this pick is skewed, because like many of you guys, I was rooting for this band to succeed from the jump. I still wore this damn album out because it’s so fucking good. Musically, it’s not dissimilar from As I Lay Dying, but clearly this band felt limited by the tropes of Metalcore, i.e., incessant screams and breakdowns. Because the arduous circumstances ending As I Lay Dying, these guys had a long time to work on the material. That time paid off because you can hear the work that went into sculpting and molding every detail of the instrumentation, arrangement, and production of these songs. I am really proud of how this band persevered, and turned something negative into something positive.
4. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu
I really discovered Gary Clark Jr. when I was working for the NBA at the beginning of 2014. Christina Aguilera was supposed to perform at halftime at the All Star Game. She canceled, and GCJ was one of the artists chosen to perform in addition to doing the National Anthem with a slide guitar. He was incredible, and I fell in love with Blak and Blu. The album is pretty much half Blues and half slickly produced Pop infused R&B. Needless to say, I gravitated to the Blues tunes. This album and the song in particular, “When My Train Pulls In”, was the soundtrack to my journey driving cross-country when I moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles. Gary Clark Jr’s Blues helped get me through the challenging journey.
3. Bad Rabbits – American Love
I have one person to thank for my fandom of Bad Rabbits, Mike “Scuzz” Scuilara, whom I was playing with in Unearth and also plays drums in Extinction A.D. Bad Rabbits reminds me of some of my favorite R&B from the 80’s and early 90’s. Morris Day and the Time, Bobby Brown, Rick James, Tony! Toni! Tone!, etc. These are party jams. If you know me, you know I like to party with the best of ’em. The thing that sets Bad Rabbits apart from modern “Urban” music is that they are a real band. No drum loops or samples. Just great players with a great singer. Check out “Can’t Fool Me” if you want to smile, and go watch the band live. Spectacular show!
2. At The Gates – At War With Reality
It’s difficult to talk about the new At The Gates album without mentioning last year’s Carcass reunion album, Surgical Steel. There are too many parallels not to draw a comparison. Both bands were probably equally the most influential Melodic Death Metal bands off all time, broke up relatively at the same time, both became more popular and legendary after they split, and now they’ve both managed to put out classic quality albums nearly 20 years apart, which seems like an impossible task. There have been countless imitators, clones, wannabes, including the guy writing this, but something about these 5 guys playing together that just sounds caustic and medieval in a way that is supremely unique and filled with character. Color me lucky because I NEVER thought there would be new records by either of these bands; let alone great records.
1. Bring Me The Horizon – Sempiternal
This album came out in 2013, but I supposed in my mature age, some things tend to find their way to me after the fact. Now, I’m going to do something the makes me look really stupid. I’m going to compare Bring Me The Horizon to the Beatles. Aside from being British, both bands started as more style than substance and evolved into true artists and innovators. BMTH hasn’t made their Abbey Road yet, but they have made their Revolver. In my humblest of opinions, Sempiternal is the first true classic of the Scenester, Warped Tour, Altpress, “Boy bands with guitars” genre. I can’t even tell most of those bands apart, but this record moved me. I felt that thing I felt when a truly powerful heavy record makes you punch your steering wheel when you are listening in your car, and head nodding hard as fuck on the subway with your earbuds in. I felt like a kid again. There is real passion in these songs, and I am glad that someone is moving the needle and thinking big, even if I’m late to the party.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are just oblivious to who has been making noise in heavy music for last year, than you probably have some familiarity with teenage, upstart metal band from Brooklyn, NY, Unlocking the Truth. Starting as an instrumental two-piece rocking out in Times Square as street performers, the duo’s (later trio) video went viral, and the world took notice.
Seemingly overnight, Unlocking The Truth became the band du jour to serve as opening acts for the biggest names in rock and metal including Guns N Roses, Queens of the Stone Age, in addition to playing mammoth festivals like Coachella and Heavy MTL. More recently, their ascent to fame has been capped off by securing a highly publicized and possibly lucrative record deal with Sony as well as a performance on The Colbert Report, which is unheard of for metal acts.
The public at large appears to be fully embracing this band. Overall, I think that is a great thing. I can’t help feeling somewhat connected to the band. For a time, God Forbid was considered by some to be the torchbearer for black metal musicians. Despite our bass player, John, being white, and my brother and I being bi-racial, race was a big part of our narrative. Especially in the early years. It made me proud to be an ethnic metal band, knowing that it lifted the stigma for many young black people who were hesitant to get involved in music because of the resistance between black, urban culture and rock music. Even if it’s not true, I would love to believe that God Forbid helped pave the way for a band like Unlocking the Truth, and make their journey easier.
Although I feel that Unlocking the Truth’s presence is a net positive (lord knows metal needs some exciting stories), something about the meteoric nature of their transition from obscurity to notoriety is troubling. I couldn’t shake the feeling, so I kept ruminating. The pure talent and ability, for such young people, is obvious. These kids can play. They also aren’t scared of the spotlight. That shows confidence, which usually takes a lot of time to cultivate.
The question has to be asked: Is this band as good as the hype machine is telling us or are we all just wrapped up in the subterfuge of a charming, appealing underdog?
After a good deal of thought, my diagnosis is that the momentous adulation is slightly premature. We are crowning the king before he is ready to rule. Out of some politically correct instinct, the media has been tip-toeing in pointing out the band’s inherent novelty: They are teenagers and they black. Right now, people are enthralled with the novelty and the raw talent.
But, we are yet to hear a song that exemplifies what this band has to say as musicians, artists, lyrically, and sonically. We haven’t heard that song because the band has not released any material yet. How excited can you be for a band that you don’t even really know what their music is? Maybe we’re in a time where the music is supplementary to the spectacle and the story. There are plenty of great bands out there who are personally boring as hell. No story. No image. No brand. No charisma. Style and substance have been glorious partners in rock n roll history. Expert tacticians with no personality bug me just as much as glamorous storefronts with empty shelves masquerading as bands.
I am mainly troubled because I am worried about these kids. From what I hear, their parents and handlers are doing a great job taking care of them. Which is wonderful to hear after the nightmare stories circulated about child stars like Lindsay Lohan and Macaulay Culkin’s parents. I am worried because there is a strong chance that this moment in time is as good as it gets. They won’t always be teenagers. Novelties wear off. Especially if you don’t have the music to back it up. Will Guns N Roses or Colbert want them when they are 25 years old instead of 15, grinding on their 3rd record, and the shine has faded?
Three examples of bands that come to mind who were previously heralded for their advanced skill level at a young age are Silver Chair, Kittie, and Trivium. In all cases, their first album was their biggest album in terms of record sales (US & UK for Trivium’s Ascendancy). Out of the three, Trivium is currently the only active band and has had a robust and consistent career. They were slightly older than Kittie and Silver Chair, and you could make a case that their music was good enough that their youth only enhanced success that would have already been there. At least Kittie and Silver Chair had a handful of definable hit songs that were played on the radio and MTV. The fan impact and connection was measurable. UTT has not even hit this benchmark.
Having your highest point of success as a teenager must really do a number on your psyche. You can see why so many child stars end up with drug problems and mental and emotional issues.
I am also a bit bothered by the populous being a little too enamored with their blackness and youngness. “They are so cute. They are black kids playing heavy metal.” How cute it is indeed. But therein lies the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” As if their youth and race are impediments. It feels like people rooting for someone with a disability completing a rudimentary physical task becoming somehow heroic. It’s unknowingly and passively insulting. We should like them for being good…period. Not good for being young, black men. We have to judge them against great music as a whole. This isn’t boxing. There aren’t weight classes.
With all of that said, I am rooting for these teenagers. For all of our sakes, I hope that signing Unlocking the Truth is analogous to drafting Lebron James out of high school, and they will become the Hall of Famers so many are predicting. As a realist, I refuse to see the Emperor’s clothes. That dude is currently naked. When these young men arrive, I will be the first to greet them with open arms. We need the next headliners and gateway bands. Until that happens, let’s be supportive but reserved until there is tangible substance.
“This is the end!” This is the emphatic, anthemic line in the God Forbid opening track from the album IV: Constitution of Treason, which was released during the peak of our powers in 2005. In fact, it wasn’t the end. The end came much later. At the time, it felt like we were invincible, destined for heavy metal immortality. And we were in the lower tier of the NWOAHM (or Metalcore or whatever you want to call it) in all metrics for determining the success or popularity of bands. If you look at album, ticket, and merchandise sales, Myspace friends, Youtube views, Facebook “likes”, or the ever mystical buzz on the street, God Forbid was probably never half as big as any of the rest of the Big 4 of Quitters (I should trade mark this) including Bleeding Through, Shadows Fall, and now Chimaira. Knowing that, even we felt invincible. That’s how intoxicating achieving any discernible success with your art can be. Shadows Fall and Chimaira hanging it up in the last couple weeks have brought an outpouring of sadness, shock and disappointment from fans. It seems like the end of an era, and maybe it is.
Hearing that these great bands are moving on makes me sad and disappointed, but not shocked. The truth is that amongst peers a good majority of our conversations have to do with figuring out how to stay relevant by finding new audiences, getting great tours, signing with the right label, writing the next game changing album, and more. Teetering on the edge of existence has been much of our collective realities for half of our careers. As the O.G. quitter, I’m here to explain why this is happening and why you shouldn’t be surprised.
I have always been fascinated by American race relations. Ours is a history that has always been colored by race, no pun intended. Being bi-racial probably gives me more objective standpoint than most, but no one can claim pure objectivity. We’re all victim to our upbringing, environment, and even genetic tools of intellect we’re born with.
Barack Obama’s election was supposed to be dawn of the post-racial society, but instead I believe that it has been a powder keg for racial tensions that have been brewing in all of the decades since Civil Rights breakthroughs of the 1960’s. It seems as though race is the backdrop to every other scandalous news story: The Trayvon Martin case, the Donald Sterling debacle, and now the firing of radio show host Anthony Cumia of ” The Opie and Anthony Show” on Sirius/XM.
It’s 3:25am. I am about half-way through catching up with the latest episode of The Walking Dead. I find myself drifting. Bored. Questioning every logical move of the characters. Why go in that door? Why walk down that road? What the hell are these assholes doing?
Than emerges a revelation…an epiphany…a corner is turned….a shark is jumped.
It dawns on me that the entire concept of the zombie apocalypse is fucking stupid. I apologize for the language, but mentally malnourished subject matter must be engaged with the same level of nuance in which it was conceived.
My only real rule with my writing is to pursue a genuine sense of honesty and self reflection. This can be difficult in general throughout life because often, we lie to our selves. How can you truly be honest with others when you can’t even sift through the subterfuge of your own subconscious self deception?
With that said, I’m calling bullshit on myself for not following through with my own pep talk from my previous entry, “The Cookie Crumbles”, which details my thoughts on persevering through adversity. The article was quite rousing, if not self-helpish in it’s tone, and somewhat sanctimonious in hindsight. (I often find people giving other people life advice sanctimonious.)
Since the posting of that piece, I’ve fallen into what could only be described as some sort of depression. I usually don’t go see a doctor unless it’s a dire need, so in times like these, I tend to act as my own shrink. I always feel that there should be a logical reason for depressed thoughts and feelings; A relationship breakup, a job layoff, a death in the family, etc. Hence, there should be a logical solution to said problem. Whether it’s getting more sun or exercise, socializing more, or perhaps taking significant time to heal from a loss is the only answer. Logic aside, one caveat is that there could be just a chemical imbalance, i.e., clinical depression, but I would only want to try anti-depressants as a last resort. I had a horrible experience once after trying them for a few days. I would rather to go to the root of the problem, not reach for a band aid.
As a write this, I am doing my best to arise from a creative malaise. It’s no revelation to most of us “artists” that creativity is a muscle that weakens without consistent use. The blank canvas, empty page, or barren Pro Tools session can seem like a tall mountain climb when you haven’t produced in a significant period of time.
I’ve had several ideas floating around my head, but I haven’t written an in-depth blog piece in almost 2 months. Despite my intro, I wasn’t creatively blocked. I just didn’t have any damn time. As many of you know, I took a touring gig filling in on bass guitar for metalcore heavyweight champs, Unearth. The month before the tour was a whirlwind of busy activity. In addition to tying up loose ends with my new rock band (Vagus Nerve), cover band (Rebel Noise Group), picking up extra shifts bartending, teaching guitar at School of Rock and privately, and curating an educational performance for Tomato’s House of Rock in NYC, I still had to learn 14 Unearth songs in whatever free time I had. Thankfully, all of the tasks were completed, but I was left little time to be creative….in any arena.
I am a reactionary. External events and debates get my brain going, and inspire me to throw my opinionated hat into the ring of discourse. I remember not too long ago clicking on a link to a preview of the new Avenged Sevenfold album. Previously, I was lukewarm on the single of the same name “Hail To The King”. But it grew on me, and I really enjoyed the record top to bottom when I listened to the full preview, and in repeat visits since. It sounded like Avenged to me. Albeit more mid-paced, groovy and hook focused.
Apparently, the rest of the “real” metal world was not enjoying the album as much as me, and flatly considered the album to be directly plagiarizing early 90’s era Metallica, Guns N Roses and Megadeth. On the Metalsucks Podcast I was interviewed on, they viciously concurred this sentiment and even included a mash-up of Metallica’s “Sad But True” and Avenged’s “This Means War”. Metalsucks.net blog also preceded this with a track-by-track rundown of the musical borrowings of Hail To The King. The barrage of criticisms didn’t end as the legendary Rob Flynn of Machine Head posted a tongue-in-cheek Blog “congratulating” the band on their chart topping success. Not to mention the backlash by many fans of the band who thought they took a turn for the worse. The album was being considered a crime a against all things artistically viable and true to metal’s code of conduct.
Why wasn’t I hearing what everyone else was hearing? Of course I heard the influences. As clear and direct as they might have been, it didn’t bother me the way it did everyone else. As far as I was concerned Avenged Sevenfold was jocking Metallica, Guns N Roses, Megadeth, and Iron Maiden since City of Evil. It’s not like it was Cannibal Corpse and they put out an acoustic album. This is a band that has been on a major label for 10 years, who came out of the gate very image conscious and market savvy, has multiple platinum and gold albums, an MTV Video Award, and regularly headlines arena tours. How do you sell out when you are already one of the biggest and commercially viable bands in the world?
It’s only been a week since we closed the door on God Forbid, but with so much outpouring of affection, sharing of memories, disclosures of sadness bordering on mourning from friends, fans, fellow compatriots in the music industry, and my own reflections burrowing their way from my subconscious to the surface, I thought I should share some of my thoughts about what kind of legacy we left.
In all honesty, it feels silly to use a word like legacy when talking about my own band, but I was actually having some sentimental feelings about the musical catalog God Forbid has amassed when I was preparing for the last couple shows we did, before I decided to leave the group. I was practicing a few songs I hadn’t played in a while, and in that time, I started listening back to some songs and albums I hadn’t heard to in quite some time. And in that moment, I felt a deep sense of pride and accomplishment. For perhaps the first time, I heard a distinct sound that permeated from our first album to our last. Although that sound had evolved over time and become more nuanced and composed and lost some of it’s teeth, much of the feel was there. The groove was consistent. Dynamics always played a part. Darkness and melody persisted and coexisted. The words spoke about pushing through and striving for better.