Tag Archives: Music

Coheed And Concept Albums

In Changing My Opinions Of My Changing Opinions VII: Volume I: From Preconceived Notions Came My Shoddy Judgment

I must admit, for most of my teen years I had a narrow musical mind and an intense hatred for anything that even mildly suggested ’emo’ to me. I remember so many of the band names rattled off to me on a daily basis: Dashboard Confessional, Further Seems Forever, Mae, Days Away – so on and so forth, etc, etc. They all seemed to reach for some far away meaning, some elusive happiness that every teary chord and lyric brought closer somehow. One sappy syllable after another, I cringed and wondered when and how rock had lost its backbone. My musical discussions with people always went the same way – poorly.

Step 1: Meet and greet new person.

Step 2: Exchange a list of interests.

Step 2a: Arrive at the topic of music.

Step 3: Listen to them mumble through their favorite bands (that I hated).

Step 4: Politely refer them to Ozzy (Oh how sophisticated I was).

Step 5: Pray for their lost soul as I lost interest.

(The term social pariah probably applied to me back then.)

Once in a while, though, the name Coheed and Cambria emanated from someone’s nondescript, repulsively lip-ringed mouth. Those words weren’t on the lengthy list of names that screamed hormonal misunderstanding and were riddled with Simpson’s quotes. It was new and suggested no feelings – my interest piqued. But the suggestion to try them out came from people whose taste I didn’t respect (No Ozzy, no dice).

After hearing ‘A Favor House Atlantic’ and ‘Devil In Jersey City’, I gave up. Too cutesey. Too concise, I thought. No one bothered to explain it to me. No one told me the story, the continuity behind the music. They probably didn’t know much beyond the fact that Coheed’s sound fit nicely in their chosen pop music niche. I forgot about them in seconds.

My opinions softened since then, and at the suggestion of a certain bass-slapping friend, I gave them a second chance. I’m glad I did, as this is a band whose work really can’t be taken at face value.

First – a brief lesson. Coheed and Cambria, since their second album (and to some degree the first), have composed their music around a story entitled ‘The Amory Wars’, conceptualized by lead singer Claudio Sanchez and depicted (at least partially) in a series of comics/graphic novels. Their arrangement on the albums is similar to a movie soundtrack, setting important aspects of the story to song.

The songs each tell a part of the surprisingly complex story, in comparison to most other popular music, where songs – though they deal with many different themes – do not feed into an overarching narrative. This interrelatedness and direction towards a defined end point provides each song a certain added cohesiveness, in a way that actually made me crave more of the story.

Sure, the concept album has been done many times before – Rush’s 2112 comes to mind, as do a number of Dream Theater albums – and Coheed may not be the best at what they do, but they’ve managed to bring a slice of progressive rock into the mainstream (though the prog label might be an improper fit). Prog rock isn’t always an easy sell – so it’s nice to see it, or at least something like it, getting attention.

My initial negative reaction to their music had a lot to do with the lyrics – with the high pitched singing, emotional hooks, indecipherable lines and phrases – I just couldn’t seem to follow any of it. Approaching the songs on a case by case basis was simply the wrong way to go – a heartening fact, because if their fans somehow got it, why couldn’t I?

After discovering the story and the nature of the albums, my prejudice against the lyrics evaporated.  Following a narrative was much more engaging than trying to latch on to each individual song. Though much of the inspiration for the lyrical content undoubtedly comes from the author’s personal experience (like many works of fiction), the novel approach he took to songwriting cleared up the vanity that I usually associate with pop lyrics. To wrap it all inside a work of fiction may be vain as well – but frankly, I’ll take a good story based on someone’s feelings over a true outpouring of emotions any day. Good thing I’m not a therapist.

As each song unfolds, the central hero learns, experiences and changes, adding weight to the journey with every step (It’s downright folky, if you think about it). Even if every song means something different, those meanings build the character and explore the lore instead of remaining self contained. This unique structuring created a situation, at least for me, where going back and forth through the songs uncovered little things here and there I hadn’t noticed before. Usually this is something I associate with books, movies, or serialized shows like Battlestar Galactica – not music.

A great deal of music insists on listeners to identify with the lyrical content. Think about this: how often do we see Facebook statuses and away messages that consist of meaningful song quotes? I’ve seen it a lot – and used to be guilty of it too. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with it, of course – just illustrating how often we look to music for guidance, or to say something we can’t adequately express ourselves. Most artists have a story to tell, but usually not one that spans more than a single song, much less several albums.

It’s akin to reading short stories versus reading novels. Both are valid forms of literature, but where the short story gets to the point quickly and packs every sentence full of meaning, novels are immersive, letting readers identify wherever and with whomever they wish, yet always convincing the reader to move on and finish out the journey.

I’d tell other artists to try Coheed’s model, but then I’d have to hate their imitators for the very same reason I thought I didn’t like Coheed in the beginning.

Oh, the irony.

-Alex

P.S. Chaos Collage welcomes you back.

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For Artists

In most occupations the question of responsibility is easily answered. A doctor must ensure the safety and health of their patients to the best of their ability. A scientist must pursue the physical truths of the universe with the greatest accuracy possible. A teacher must support their students in their pursuit of knowledge and provide the structure necessary to do so. Even with this seeming occupational clarity, there is one question which haunts some of us daily: What is the responsibility of the artist in the modern world? That condition of “modern” is very important to this piece; the rise of the internet has so drastically increased the world’s access to art that it cannot be ignored as a passing factor. What is the modern artist to do?

As with any piece such as this, I find it essential that I define our subject. In this case I would define an artist as a creator of entertainment or intellectual enrichment. This would include music, literature, graphic art, physical pieces and filmed pieces. Obviously quite a few specialties fall in between or are combinations of those qualifications, and they should be counted as well. What should not be counted is creativity in more practical professions. For example, there is a certain art to creating new medical equipment, a type of thought that innovates to serve directly. However, because its ultimate goal is to serve the health of the public and not to enrich intellectually, it is not part of this argument.

Amongst the few of us that have the mental disease that forces us to create instead of doing something more obviously useful to society, I have noticed a pattern. Artists are not only interested in their own area of work, but typically have very strong and educated opinions in other areas of art. This is evident throughout much of history as many great thinkers and artists have delved into other territory. Furthermore, most artists seem to have an attraction to philosophy and in turn, history and politics. This is completely logical as art uses all these things as a framework to deliver its message. While in earlier civilizations this was also linked to science and math, we have advanced far enough to separate the theoretical side of thought from that of direct scientific pursuit. Additionally, the modern artist has all of this information at their fingertips, making these varied artistic pursuits that much more complete.

For the purposes of this piece, I ask you to accept that artists in general are good at this type of theoretical thought. It is because we are good at it that we also enjoy it (ok, we enjoy it for other reasons too, but work with me). Though I am a writer and wish to do that for the rest of my life, I also invest quite a bit of time and thought in other forms of art without any promise or hope of turning that into an economic pursuit. That is a big factor in why Alex and I started this blog in the first place. This information is important and it must be preserved and spread. That is the first piece of the responsibility an artist holds.

Last Spring I attended a college radio conference and was treated to a lecture by Public Enemy front man Chuck D. While he told many stories and dispensed many opinions on the state of hip hop, he made two big points that have stuck with me. The first was that it is the responsibility of the artist to pursue information, you can’t expect to be handed anything and if you aren’t enthusiastic enough to put the effort in you should find something else to do with your life. The other was the responsibility of the artist to educate the public on that which they love. Specifically, he spoke on how the fall of the radio DJ has diminished the public’s knowledge of music. With no one to guide them to their next record, or perhaps the preceding record, most people simply do not put in the effort to find new music. In this case, artists are simply not being paid for their skills.

We all need to put food on the table, and one can certainly do so by creating art. Though even commercial art can be of great value to society, I believe the artist owes society something more than that. If we are equipped to think in a different way than most, it is our responsibility to provide these inquests to the general public. This responsibility should not only include our personal area of focus, but any other topics we are well versed in. Our skills may not seem to be needed on a daily basis, but they contribute in many important ways. Art often comments on the philosophical and political state of society. This adds another layer of responsibility; the artist must keep up on the overall state of the world, even beyond art. How could one effectively comment on a society that they don’t understand? Not that this would be a burden, as I stated prior this tends to be an area of interest for artists regardless.

This is not to say that those who are not artists have nothing to contribute, society would completely collapse without the more practically minded. A world populated by only artists would not be able to sustain itself for long. What I am saying is that the gift/curse an artist holds can be used to enrich the lives of the world. We are the stewards of free thought, it is our responsibility to preserve and enrich as many aspects of art as we can, because not everyone cares enough to do so.

Vinny’s unrelated video pick of the week!

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Medicinal Music

If it wasn’t evident already, I’m not a huge fan of mainstream music. In a couple of my earlier posts, such as “If It’s Not On The Radio” and “The Mass Market Music Blues”, I discussed my general negativity towards cookie-cutter pop music, and why the artists the mass media doesn’t promote are probably better than the ones it does. All very interesting, right?

In any case, it didn’t allow much room for me to gush about what I like. And though I could talk about Zakk Wylde prancing around stage until I’m blue in the face, I think a little variety in post-types could add another dimension to the Chaos Collage. With that, I give you my first list!

Five instrumentals to un-funk your day!

Note: Links to all songs included – plus some extras!

5. Pink Floyd – Any Colour You Like

Believe it or not, I got into Pink Floyd by listening to Dream Theater. After ‘discovering’ progressive rock, I got my hands on all kinds of albums, some of them including bootlegs of Dream Theater concerts. One of those albums was a cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety. They really managed to stay true to the original, even with the added embellishments on the synthesizer and guitar. Both versions have their charm, but what remains the same is the spacey, floating first half that transitions into a lilted guitar solo. By the end I always feel like my head has popped out from underwater and I’m taking in a fresh breath. Not too many songs can claim that.

Dream Theater’s Cover

4. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones – The Sinister Minister

There is little chance I’d know of or appreciate this tune if it weren’t for my beardless bass-playing ex-roommate. He just wouldn’t shut up about bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten, and eventually I found myself bobbing my head along to their smooth lines without even realizing it. “The Sinister Minister” is an odd, but endearing blend of instruments that sets an equally odd scene in my mind. The beginning of this reminds me of boredom – kicking around a can on a perfectly sunny afternoon. As the song picks up, that can is kicked into the wrong person’s yard – a person with no love of idle passers-by, and an affinity for shotguns. It gets my mind (and my legs) moving.

3. Bear McCreary – Black Market

Have I mentioned that I love the new Battlestar Galactica? Well, now that I have, I’ll also say that the show’s original score is probably the best I’ve ever heard on television. Composer Bear McCreary takes elements from various forms of ethnic music – Asian, Middle Eastern, Celtic, and so on, blending them into extremely exciting, dynamic pieces that add more to the show than I thought possible. “Black Market” is his take on what a rock song might sound like in the Battlestar universe. It certainly fits that bill, but the use of ethnic instruments allows the song to feel much farther away than it is. The haunting melody builds up into a distorted explosion of guitars, taking you for a journey before leaving you right back where it began. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again, indeed.

Black Market, Live Version

2. Paco De Lucia – Rio Ancho

If a type of music was capable of physically moving a person from a humdrum life to an idyllic spot somewhere along the ocean, flamenco would be it. This tune has a way of making me forget the cold weather and the endless concrete canyons outside my window. I think the music calls attention to itself, if only because it places complexity and accessibility side by side. Playing flamenco requires a lot of practice and even more natural talent, but I don’t think anyone needs a musical ear or an understanding of the culture around flamenco music to enjoy it. Also, where the first three songs all shift lower moods to higher ones, Rio Ancho stays consistent, reflecting its intent as a dance piece. Besides, what better way to escape a lousy mood than by going somewhere foreign?

1. Paul Gilbert – Radiator

Ah, Mr. Gilbert. For anyone that knows me, it’s probably no surprise that he found his way to the number one slot. “Radiator” is off of Paul’s first instrumental album Get Out Of My Yard, which catapulted him onto the stage with other great guitarists of our time, like Steve Vai and John Petrucci. I suppose I’m biased since I saw him play this in the flesh, but I’ve always loved the song for having true rock n’ roll attitude with an underscoring of hopeful sadness. There is a constant struggle between hoping and doing that sets this song apart from the others I’ve listed – the playing is raw and conflicted. Where the first four were escapist, this is more personal. Paul’s playing shifts these emotions around, not letting either one gain the upper hand until the solo section when the attitude takes over for good. The urge one gets at the end is simple – Wake up. Go. Do.

There you have it. Readers, feel free to list and/or suggest your own rainy day music!

-Alex

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Keep An Eye On Your Music

Stage presence and its effect on you!

Old habits die hard, isn’t that right? Well, it applies to this week’s post pretty well, for two reasons. The first, I’m falling back into comfortable territory by writing something music-related. Sorry readers, but I tried with “Learn By Fragging” and though it was fun to write, I’m going to wait a while longer before writing about gaming again.

The other old habit I’m talking about is my propensity towards listening to heavy metal. My musical tastes have matured way beyond my expectations and now my iTunes is filled with varying genres of rock and roll, jazz and jazz fusion, classical, folk; anything you can think of. I come by it honestly, too – I’ve never felt the need to ‘like’ something just to culture myself. But I somehow always find my way back to the shredders I worshiped in high school, though not because my tastes have devolved. After listening to some of those tracks again, I found something new.

My fixation of late came after stumbling upon a live performance of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” on YouTube. It was the type of song I used to load up when I felt the need to head-bang or tune out my thoughts. I’m sure it would still have that effect if I were in the right state of mind, but after actually watching this performance I noticed something wholly different than aggression and torment (Ozzy’s transparent lyrics aside, of course) – I found energy, and positive energy at that.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. “Bark at the Moon” is a fast song with rhythm that never really lets up; the drums and bass are constantly driving the song forward. The guitar is also ever-present with its staccato chord progressions and dizzying solo passages. But just listening isn’t enough, and I have definitive proof:

Mr. Your-Body-Is-A-Wonderland John Mayer once experimented (see linked video) with musical “kinetics” by playing Van Halen’s “Panama” whilst standing in place, just to see how much it would rock. It didn’t. Aside from proving that he’s a moron, he demonstrated that motion and the quality of a live performance are directly related; one cannot go without the other, at least where bands are concerned.

Therein lies the gooey, happy center of this Ozzy song, and it isn’t that creepy bat-eating skeleton hovering in the middle of the stage. I like Ozzy, but he’s not the world’s greatest front man, and the onslaught of arthritis seems to have put an end to his on-stage antics. It’s the musicians he surrounds himself with that make up for it by throwing body and soul into their performances. These guys steal the show.

In the back we see Mike Bordin pounding out the beat on his drums like the song is never going to be played again. When the camera actually cuts to his face the intensity is really visible. Some might call that his metal face, but all I see is passion and focus. The same goes for Rob Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) – his body constantly swaying in time, his feet stomping on the stage when the heavy notes of the bridge hit; he is the perfect image of a musician connected to the circular experience of playing for a crowd. It might look metal, but the intention is to transfer his energy and passion to the crowd in a palpable way.

And how could I forget Zakk Wylde? Firstly, I have to say that his down-tuned version of the song really adds some crunchy weight that the original recording just didn’t have. The guitar here sounds bigger – but that’s technical stuff.  As far as performance goes, he adds an otherworldly touch to the scene on stage. He’s the image of a Norse warrior, leaning back with his guitar (in place of an axe, of course), made complete by his long blond hair and beard. He tosses his head back at those moments where the music hits a crescendo or changes suddenly, acting as a visual and quite visceral representation of the music for the audience.

Put these three together, and they completely counteract the effects of the black hole that is Ozzy Osbourne and his immobility. And if the shots of the audience are any evidence, they’ve done their jobs admirably.

Music is meant to be heard and felt no matter the setting, but the feeling needs to be multiplied for live performances. Technique and playing ability are all well and good, but if a musician can’t convey the passion in their music to an audience, then they’ve failed. Metal is a good example because of how visible that passion is, though even then it’s often easy to miss.

If you’re looking to give an old song new meaning, though – find a live performance on YouTube. Then listen with your eyes.

-Alex

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Paul Picks Up The Pieces

And makes them rock.

It’s February! The time of year when temperatures drop to their most unbearable levels and we’re supposed to replace the warmth of our malfunctioning heaters with the warmth emanating from our hearts. What a bunch of delightful bull-crap. No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, but I’ll tell you what does – pop songs rearranged and made into beautiful, much less simplistic, pieces of hard rock candy.

To reiterate a point I made a few weeks ago: modern pop music is dying a slow, painful death. The only cure would be a complete change in thought both on the part of the recording industry and musicians all at once. It isn’t going to happen, at least not in such a complete and obvious way. That said, not all pop music is necessarily bad when placed into the right hands. Obviously, this is something that runs on a case by case basis, and therefore I will once again be using examples familiar to me in order to get at the larger picture.

A couple years ago I discovered the guitarist Paul Gilbert during the last stop of the G3 Tour, and ever since he’s been the model I hold a whole host of other musicians up to. His technique, skill, range (with regards to his ability to successfully write and play music from varying genres), and his stage presence are in my mind unequaled. In the late 80’s, after his tenure with the metal band Racer X, he joined Mr. Big, a group who ran the line between pop, hard rock and hair metal. Well, let’s face facts – at the dawning of the 90’s that was popular music.

Their one relatively successful radio hit in the U.S. (they had a much larger following in Japan) was a song called “To Be With You” . It’s upbeat. It’s sweet. It’s a love song through and through. If the verses were shared, rather than dominated by frontman Eric Martin’s smooth (yet somehow raspy) set of pipes, the tune could easily fit into the Backstreet Boys library. A song like “To Be With You” would normally sicken me, but in my quest to explore the “essence of Gilbert”, I stumbled across something interesting.

I’m not entirely certain when the DVD was recorded, but sometime after his break from Mr. Big, Paul participated in a show called “Guitar Wars”, where he performed a very different version of the aforementioned song. The Van Halen inspired rendition is perhaps a bit ironic, as one will notice the opening riff is taken from “Ain’t Talkin About Love”, though the reason it resonates with me so well lies elsewhere. Here, have a listen:

Firstly, he begins the song in a minor key, which I think lends the tune a certain sense of desperation that just isn’t present in the original. That little added sense of danger turns the sickly sweetness of the original on its head. Paul throws in embellishments on the guitar from the very beginning, making the song sound thicker, and during the verses the chords are played in arpeggios rather than just strummed, which I think helps to change what was once a simple tune into something much more technically and artistically worthwhile.

Paul’s style of singing also throws away the fluff of the song’s previous incarnation. His voice is raw, which certainly fits better with hard rock, but it also adds to the atmosphere of the lyrics. Eric Martin’s vocals sound very confident, like the song’s subject female only needs a little pep talk to find her way into the arms of the right man – the way it’s sung sounds almost deceptive. Paul, on the other hand, first sounds as if he’s defending someone rather than giving a motivational speech, then with the chorus makes the longing and desire sound right. I wish I had better words for it, but the rawness of his voice makes the revealing words in the chorus sound more sincere.

To top it off, the accompanying harmony vocals of bassist Mike Szuter, and the fact that Paul manages to sing and solo at the same time make this version really dynamic. Though, if one is a fan of  Mr. Big’s version, Paul does throw in the original guitar break towards the end as a nice tip of the hat.

I suppose after looking at pop music through a rock filter, I’d have to say that in some cases there are songs that have actual potential. The song might need a hard rock makeover, but I cannot ignore the fact that it had its origins in the pop world. Of course, that still means that most of what’s out there is complete and utter garbage, but once in a while I’m surprised by what happens to catch my ear.

-Alex

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The Mass Market Music Blues

The train – she’s a goin’ nowhere.

I was prepared to bore the readership with a story about my personal evolution as a music listener, or as Vinny might put it, a “music appreciator”. While it might have explained how I arrived at my feelings towards certain artists and genres, and illustrated the love I have for some and the contempt I have for others, I feel it would have bogged down the reader with needless personal information. Therefore, I will make this statement as simple as possible.

I admire artists who take chances with their material and who don’t conform to a cookie cutter formula when composing music. I love artists that show a high level of musicianship, who can allow their instruments to speak for themselves, rather than letting a lone voice speak for them – not to say that lyrics and a charismatic front man aren’t important, but artists who strike a balance between the two find themselves high up on my list. It’s really more complicated than that, but for the sake of blog sized writing, I’ll leave it there.

On to the point – the cookie cutter approach, modern pop music’s crutch. Plain and simple, it isn’t working, at least not for me. Since hindsight is twenty-twenty, and because  it was recent enough to remain relevant, let’s take a quick look at late nineties pop and apply it to the mold I’m suggesting.

Britney Spears had just exploded onto the airwaves, alongside acts like the Backstreet Boys, and any number of R&B artists – not to mention Limp Bizkit and other “rap-rock” type groups. They gained popularity not through the merit and quality of their music necessarily, but through image. A sexy schoolgirl with a pretty voice, five preppy guys who could melt hearts, a dumb white guy with a Yankees cap – they all applied to certain demographics (well, maybe not Fred Durst).

In a money driven world, and perhaps more importantly, money driven music industry, the mass market is subjected to what will sell. While these trends endured, more of the same kept popping up: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, N’Sync, 98 Degrees, and so on. Were they all making the music they wanted to make? Maybe. Did they have any control over how the media would portray them? Doubtful.

To tie this in with Vinny’s argument about singles – the symptom is largely the same. Though I’m not an industry insider, I can say with some degree of certainty that artists have very little control over what songs from their album get chosen as singles. The recording industry decides what the mass market will like, and pushes it. What results are artists who are made to sound like they have very little to add to the music scene, even if other tracks on their albums are worthwhile. Because of the way the industry packages them, artists are unwillingly and unfairly categorized and stereotyped.

There are a few brave individuals such as myself who support artists that aren’t necessarily backed up by the full weight of the recording industry, but in general I think what we hear on the radio and see on MTV are representative of what marketers have decided the most people will enjoy (and pay to see more of).

But one can bet that when an artist branches out and tries something new, one of two things happens. They either become more successful, or really, really poor (or fall into obscurity, barely managing to eke out a living off of their small cult followings).

-Alex

Now, just for fun, I’ll toss in my answer to Vinny’s argument.

In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?

Firstly, this is a valid fear, and it’s already happening. As for what can be done, there are a couple things. Looking from the top down – music is both an industry and an art, but money makes the world go round, and the same goes for music. Therefore, if labels were producing music solely for the sake of music and art, with profit only an idea on the backburner, we might see some more risky music falling into people’s hands. Until they stop trying to capitalize on every current trend and shove it down our collective throats, we will likely be faced with heavily marketed music. There’s slim chance that will ever happen, of course.

Looking from the bottom up, aspiring artists need to look at the musical landscape before them. The way things are now, if they want to make a living doing what they love, they need to play into current trends to some degree, or else they’ll never get picked up by a label. I’ve seen too many local bands with MySpace pages that want to “push the musical envelope” (whatever the fuck that means), but just end up sounding like everyone else – how many of them ever really “make it”?

Like any good revolution, it has to start from the bottom and rise to the top. There needs to be a collective effort on the part of aspiring artists to really differentiate themselves from all the other popular offerings out there. The problem is, paradigm shifting is a hell of a lot harder than sounding just slightly different than someone else. Yes sir, we’re in dire need of a game changer.

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