27 July 2006
What's a Manifesto?
Simon Reynolds recently wrote a very interesting piece, not on music, but on the state of music writing. It’s something that everyone should read, as I consider him something of the daddy when it comes to people today who write about music.
Some would suggest that mantle should go to Paul Morley, but my only exposure to him has been his incredibly annoying turns on Newsnight Review, where he attempts to romanticise any old tat in that REALLY… EARNEST… WAY that he does. But apparently it’s all about his writing, so I intend to pick up a book before too long. I don’t want to be hating on him for the wrong reasons now.
So anyway, Reynolds. I’ve really noticed him popping up everywhere of late (well, by that I mean the Guardian Film & Music supplement and the Guardian Guide), though I know him primarily from his work with The Wire magazine, wherein he seems to know about every style of music ever.
And I don’t mean that in a facetious manner, either; the man really knows his stuff. In fact, I considered it something of a victory when he remarked on his blog fairly recently that he had never heard of the band Isis. A victory because I know all about them. Small, because his ignorance on the subject is probably a rather damning indictment of the band.
That was about this current series of gigs in London, where bands play their alleged ‘overlooked classic’ albums in their entirety. There are some good choices (Girls Against Boys playing Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby is something I’d like to have been a part of), but stuff like Isis’ Oceanic is a real head-scratcher.
Not only because, as Reynolds pointed out, some of these albums are a tad young to be considered any kind of ‘classic’ (come on, Oceanic came out in late 2002), but also because Isis just aren’t that good.
And that’s not in the sense that Metal bands can’t be making classics, because obviously I am a big fan of what constitutes Metal. My problem there is that the band, along with that other flavour of the month Pelican, are just so damn middle of the road.
It’s one thing for practitioners of Metal to be pushing the boundaries (a good thing), and even to be searching for new audiences (another good thing). It’s just that, according to these bands, this has to be done by reducing Metal to the kind of aural wallpaper bland nothingness that the likes of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós and Mogwai (occasionally, though the latter band’s latest is a return to noisy form) have been known to foist on Indie music since 2001.
It’s a shame, because there are some great Metal bands that are doing new(ish) things with the form, such as the excellent Kayo Dot (really effective uses of dynamics, as the quiet bits really are beautiful), Mouth Of The Architect and Genghis Tron (scintillating mix of Grindcore and electronics, both done well, that never seems to jar).
And besides, if they wanted a token ‘Metal’ band for their ‘overlooked classics’ series, then they should to go the album that started this particular scene (and did it best), Through Silver In Blood, by Neurosis.
But I digress. Simon Reynolds has just written a piece for Frieze in which he discusses the art of music writing, and the sorry state it has apparently fallen into.
I won’t go into it too much here (because you should really read it), but the gist is that, as music itself is devalued and commoditised, losing its social power and anger, so too does the writing on it. The current (and seemingly constant) retro-obsession isn't helping. And I agree. Music nowadays is in something of a bind.
Mainstream music is devoid of anything particularly interesting. The best band who sells a million-plus of each album is likely Tool and, while they have just released a really good album, they have been on a very gradual decline after 1996.
Otherwise, it’s just people making the best of a bad situation and listening to the best pop music that’s doing the rounds. And while I like the best pop music (and some not-so-best), it’s hardly life-changing stuff.
Away from the mainstream (let us not even speak of The Streets/Snow Patrol/Kaiser Chiefs), we have an underground that has become so fragmented as to lose pretty much any unifying power it once had.
In HipHop, there has been a battle, for years now, between what scenesters consider ‘true’ HipHop (Masta Ace, Ghostface, et al) against what they deem ‘backpack’ music, a term I really hate. This seems to stretch from the indie-weirdo likes of Anticon right through to the primarily noisy machismo of the Def Jux label (Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif). That's all so 2001, anyway...
Elsewhere, there are battles of words about whether Grime is dead, whether it was ever alive, what exactly constitutes Dubstep (which really just sounds to my untrained ears like Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension or Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, just not as good), and the discourse just seems to be, to borrow a phrase from Faith No More’s Bill Gould, like a bunch of ants screaming.
I was going to write a post a couple of months ago, inspired by something I read, about the proliferation of broadband and file-sharing networks leading to an almost autistic desire for music fans to collect everything they humanly could, to hear everything (arguably, while actually listening to none of it).
And that has happened to me; I feel the need to hear everything, and as a result, everything is devalued. Fortunately, I have toned that tendency down quite a bit of late, but it is a very real issue when it comes to personal approaches to music. I have been planning on posting my top 50 albums of last year since February, and it gets delayed as I, Pokémon-style, gotta catch them all!
So yeah, I agree with Simon. The fragmentation of music, as well as its reduction in magazines to shorter, shallower, reviews means that not only is there little to say anymore, but that the places to say it are fewer and farther between.
Even a magazine like Uncut, which as recently as a few years ago ran a very interesting essay on the mixing of what was termed ‘rock’s emotion with electronic music’s intelligence’ (to paraphrase) is now just a glossy home of list-o-mania and icon fetish.
I just feel a tad weird writing this. Out of my depth, maybe. Or self-important (and believe me, I'm not that deluded). The Frieze article just struck a chord with me, as what Reynolds describes needs to happen with music writing is something I have been trying to do. Granted, I’ve not been doing it very well, and with a definite preference of the personal over the social, but I’m still young, and I feel an improvement is gradually being made.
So what’s the point of this post? Aside from being an excuse to rant (this has all been stream-of-consciousness, like you couldn’t tell already from its randomness) I don’t know really, other than this is what throughsilver in blog is attempting to be about. Somewhat intelligent writing on music, even if the only people reading it are myself and crickets. Could it be that I have a manifesto?
Of course, that would mean I have to actually write about music, but I’m getting there…