Tag Archives: Popular 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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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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How Nirvana Helped Me, Even Though I Don’t Like Their Records

I don’t especially like Nirvana. At some points in my life, I’ve down right hated them. In my experience they have often served as a trump card for someone who didn’t put much thought into their musical tastes. Everyone knows at least a couple of their songs and therefore they become an easy “in” for someone who actually has nothing to add to the conversation. Here’s a good story: One time on my radio (or college PA system) show, I made the comment “Nirvana sucks. Their records were nothing special.” Within in minutes I had a foaming frat boy type yelling at me through the booth window, not only about my opinion but about using the term “record” when everyone had CDs or MP3s. In reaction to this, I cut into the song and explained to him on air that “record” was a general term for any recording and that he must have mistaken it for “vinyl.” This was the only time in 3 years that anyone had aggressively reacted to anything I said, and boy did I make some inflammatory comments during my tenure.

At this point in my life, my opinion of Nirvana is simple. They made solid pop records and had the right people hear them at the right time. The argument oft used by Mtv and VH-1 that Nirvana tapped into some sort of social aggression that occurred at that time is clearly bullcorn (another 5 points for getting that reference) and if you listen to their albums you can clearly hear that they did nothing that hadn’t been done before (or better, for that matter).

Even though they are not the band they are frequently made out to be, Nirvana did do something very important. For years after their rise to the top, record labels searched for the “next Nirvana.” This means that tons great of bands got more promotion and better record deals than they would have in any other era. Some became huge (i.e. Pearl Jam, who I personally believe would be the bigger reference point had Cobain not decided to kill himself) and some simply got to play in front of larger crowds. In this point I take solace; Nirvana probably did more good than bad for popular music. Without Nirvana I doubt I ever would have heard Veruca Salt or Green Day (who may end up warranting an entry of their own) or even Alanis Morissette on the radio, and I can’t imagine how different my taste in music would be today.

This leads to my point and hopefully a new layer to the argument we have here. Though this may shock some of you, some people do listen to the radio to find new music. Unfortunately, record labels and the large media companies tend to stick with what “works”, meaning for the foreseeable future we will continue to get the half assed show tunes of Fall Out Boy, the unbearable yelling of Beyonce and the wannabe tough guy rock of Nickelback. However, Nirvana proved that if one intriguing artist with (and this is important) a different sound can sneak in, it can have a positive impact for years to come. I had actually hoped this would happen with Against Me!, but even they were castrated by their producers on their “Major Label Debut.” That said, I doubt any of us can predict the next truly break through artist. If MP3s don’t end up having an impact that completely changes the landscape, it is only a matter of time before we get our “next Nirvana”. Until that day, our musical journeys will continue without the help of large corporations.

Before I conclude, let me make a note. The Beatles also changed the landscape on their arrival and I was not ignoring them during this. The problem is that The Beatles have had such an expansive impact that it isn’t fair to expect that to ever happen again. As I said before, without complete restructuring of the music industry their WILL be a “next Nirvana”, but there probably will never be another band like The Beatles. God bless the internet, and long live rock and roll.

-Vinny

Vinny’s Pick Of The Week:

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If It’s Not On The Radio

It’s Probably Good

Last week Vinny and I began discussing the topic of popular music. For a blog centered on the discussion and criticism of pop culture, it seemed like a natural fit to start with. The questions we have about music’s path into the future are deceptively simple. Where is it going? What is it doing? Is it a good direction? A bad one? Surely the answers to these are a matter of opinion, but then, the Chaos Collage is devoted to our opinions, and being the elitists we sometimes (or always) are, those opinions usually feel somewhat more like fact. Still, the questions remain complex.

In my last post, The Mass Market Music Blues, I briefly discussed the idea that even with artists spread across so many genres, media hyped music is focused more on image than on actual musical talent. It’s a shame, but it’s there. However, now that I’ve solidified that point, I’ll move on to the other end of the spectrum – modern music that deserves, at the least, more attention and appreciation, but just isn’t getting it.

Firstly, let’s qualify popularity. Many artists that fly under the mainstream radar are actually rather well known within their own musical niche. Joe Satriani, for example, fills large venues, has endorsement deals and gets coverage in guitar magazines, but his name is hardly ever heard on the radio or seen on television. The media pays him no serious mind because he doesn’t appeal to enough people, or the right kind of people. Hell, the man has been nominated for the “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” Grammy Award fourteen times and never won. Some might feel the nomination is enough recognition – but fourteen times? Give the guy some credit,  he at least deserves some critical validation. I say critical validation because the truth is, he will never appeal to a massive audience, and I think I’d like to keep it that way.

From a personal standpoint, a world full of people who absolutely love virtuoso guitarists like Satriani would be a nightmare. Shows would sell out too quickly, tickets would be prohibitively expensive, and there would be so much chatter from the media and fans that I might lose interest based solely on saturation. Excellent musicians deserve their chance at popularity, but, like a recent commenter suggested; keeping them a little hungry may also keep them honest. The more they care about the music, the more original it’ll be, and they’ll hold on to their diehard fans while remaining obscure to the mass market. In that respect, I suppose I’d vote to keep the status quo.

Of course, the opposite could happen. Their original stuff could end up being just what the spoon-fed masses needed, and they could either start releasing consecutive albums of little consequence (hence the phrase “I liked their earlier stuff better.”), or they could defy all the scenarios I’ve set up and be wildly popular and consistently genuine with their art.

That said, and since I’m sticking up for the little guy today, I’d like to issue a question to our readers. I’ve posted a video below of a song entitled “New Beginning” by the band Gravity. Back in 2007, they beat out two-hundred other groups in a battle-of-the-bands type competition, not to mention that all but one of them was still in high school. Considering the current musical landscape, I think that’s quite an accomplishment, especially for an instrumental-only progressive rock group.

I have my own ideas about why they took home the grand prize, and while I know anyone watching this probably wasn’t privy to the competition they faced, I think it’d be interesting to hear some other opinions about why they did, or perhaps didn’t deserve to win. Comment away!

-Alex

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The Chaos Begins

Though I am still working on a very long piece on the nature of popular music itself, in order to get this thing rolling I have decided to bring up a point that has been concerning me in recent weeks.
There is no doubt that we have all noticed the fall of the album in the record industry. The internet, in yet another unexpected side effect of the information age, has created a singles based market. Though I am fairly certain that the majority of our readership is unaffected by this change, I can say through personal experience that the public at large has bought into this one song-one price movement.
While popular music has experienced this before, the previous incarnation took place long before the vast fracturing and specialization of said music. My fear is that this change will create an irreparable divide between the pre-existing semi-professional music appreciators (five points if you get that reference) and the typical consumer. I also fear it will destroy the chances of less marketable bands ever getting a major label behind them. This could effectively ruin the advances made in the post-Beatles era (i.e. the album as an artistic form, the death of “single” cuts for radio and label willingness to let top artists experiment.)
In response to this fear, I pose two questions:
In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?
If you disagree with my argument, what will keep this collapse from happening or why is it not a collapse at all?

My next post will be a response to your responses (and yes, Alex is included in this). I will post my rebuttal sometime next week. Write good, Dudes and Duddettes.
-Vinny

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