Music Evolution: A Roundtable Discussion

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Hello, Geeks + Gamers, and welcome to another roundtable discussion. This week, we’re switching our focus from movies to the world of music. In honor (or dishonor, depending on who you ask) of the new album from Linkin Park, One More Light, I’d like to discuss bands that have evolved their style, for better or worse. Joining me on this panel is the ever-controversial Musa Chaudhry, and fellow metalhead Nick Horniachek. Introduce yourselves!

Nick: Thanks, Mike, for having me in on this. Prepare for metal nerd rants galore! I’m more of an extreme metal guy. I come from more thrash metal, melodeath, progressive metal, black metal, and straight forward death metal roots. My favorites are Metallica, Rush, Lamb of God, Trivium, Slayer, Pantera, Testament, and various others. But, in general, I love metal in basically all its forms. As for my history/thoughts on Linkin Park. . . Up here in Canada, where I live, we had a channel called Much Music. Basically, it was Canadian MTV. Back in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, nu metal was inescapable and one of these bands you heard constantly was Linkin Park. Hybrid Theory and Meteora were big deals back then, even earning them an opening spot for Metallica in 2003.

Then 2007 reared its ugly head and the music scene changed. So, when Linkin Park announced a new album (Minutes To Midnight), it was devoid of any nu metal traits that appealed to me as a young, angry third grader. The same went for many bands of their ilk like Finger Eleven, Papa Roach, and even Mudvayne who had dropped the nu metal thing by then. As time went on, I got into extremer bands and started getting less and less excited about a new Linkin Park album. Minutes To Midnight I still think is a dreadful attempt at arena rock. A Thousand Suns I thought was riskier and more admirable, but it was going in that poppier direction. Living Things was the album that made me go “screw this sellout pop garbage. I don’t care what direction this band decides to go in.” And, honestly, I haven’t heard The Hunting Party aside from the first single. So, I’m interested to hear what you guys have to say about this mess.

Mike: Before I dive into my thoughts on the new album, I want to share my own history with Linkin Park. I found the band the same way most people did when they released the single “In The End.” I was only a passive listener at that time and it wasn’t until Meteora that I transitioned into a fan. Said transition was completed in 2004, when LP collaborated with Jay-Z for the 6-track EP Collision Course. That was the point of no return for me, where I started to dive into the band’s deeper cuts and side projects.

Now, this is the part where some may see me as an apologist, but I’ve never thought Linkin Park “sold out.” I’ve genuinely enjoyed most of the albums released post-Collision Course. My favorite album has to be The Hunting Party, the band’s heaviest album since Meteora. My least favorite album is unfortunately the one that was their most ambitious at the time, A Thousand Suns. I can’t call it a bad album, but it wasn’t really the sound I was looking for (especially not in the same year that Avenged Sevenfold released Nightmare). As for One More Light, I’d put this one squarely in the middle. This time around, instead of focusing on instrumentals first, songs were constructed around lyrics. I’m not as big a fan of the singles such as “Heavy” and “Invisible” as I am of the back half of the album, which tones down the electronica elements for a more stripped-down sound. But this leads me to the meat of the discussion, where I have to ask: why is it a bad thing when bands stray too far from their original style?

Nick: Changing your sound is a very fine line to walk, especially in metal and hard rock. A classic case is Metallica, who to me never sold out. When you go back and listen to their first five albums, you can hear the evolution into Load and ReLoad. You don’t have to like the change in sound, but you have to understand that the evolution was there. It’s all in subtlety.

Let’s use a recent case in an album that is being hyped as the worst thing since Lulu (the Lou Reed/Metallica album): the new self-titled release from Suicide Silence. The album is a second-rate Korn album. It’s nothing special, but I’ve heard much worse (Attila, Emmure, and the last three All That Remains albums just to name a few). When you get down to it, this change wasn’t shocking to me. Suicide Silence has always been massively influenced by nu metal. Their cover of “Engine No. 9,” their tours with Korn, and their cover of “Roots Bloody Roots” by Sepultura all come instantly to mind. For them to make an album like this didn’t surprise me. Plus, a lot of more extreme metal bands have changed their style to great success in the grand scheme of things. Carcass went from grindcore to melodic death metal with the albums Necroticism and Heartwork. Katatonia transitioned from death/doom to straight up doom and progressive metal with The Great Cold Distance. Decapitated, with their fast, shreddy, more-technical side of death metal, moved to a more groove-oriented style. To me, a band’s change in style all should come from a genuine evolution.

Mike: I agree with you about Metallica, who have evolved their style the most organically outside of their two critical “disappointments.” I know there are a lot of good examples for both positive and negative musical evolutions. I want to see what Musa has to say on the matter.

Musa: As fans of these bands and artists, there is a part of us that wants them to deliver something in a similar vein to what they gave us last time. However, in the same we all expect our favorite artists to evolve over time or their sound will become stale. With a band like Linkin Park who have been fine-tuning and evolving their sound for more than a decade, this new album was a bit of a shock. Even an album like Living Things, while experimental, still felt distinctly like a Linkin Park album. Simply from a pure musical standpoint, One More Light sounds like nothing else they’ve done before. Sometimes that can pay off, but sometimes that switchup sounds like a marketing ploy. In this case, it feels like Linkin Park hopped on a trend. Linkin Park’s sound should feel powerful. Chester Benington’s screams spliced with Shinoda’s vocals is a beloved, iconic sound in music. I would be just as shocked if a band like Hollywood Undead made an album that was aesthetically similar to The Chainsmokers.

It definitely is not a bad thing when bands or artists switch up their sound, but, for me, that new sound has to make sense for the direction of the band. The sound needs to come from a place where I, as the listener, can understand how the band arrived to this destination. Contrast Linkin Park’s latest album to what Paramore released with After Laughter. I think Paramore handled their sound’s progression better because we saw them change as a band to the point where a full-on pop album makes sense. Linkin Park has always been more of a heavy band, and for them to put out an album that feels so light from a musical standpoint just seems weird.

Mike: I can understand where you’re coming from. After revisiting The Hunting Party for the millionth time, it is quite jarring for the band to go from their heaviest material to a more pop sound on the very next record. But, there’s an opposite extreme that is just as problematic, and that is when bands don’t change at all. Why is it bad for a band to remain static?

Musa: That depends on what you mean by static. When it comes to something like hip-hop, which is my expertise, I actually think remaining static can be a good thing, since this musical genre is more about lyrical content than it is about the backing music. I love Chino XL because no matter the beat he spits over, he’s always going to rap with an inventive flow and insane wordplay that sticks with you. The music he raps over might change from album to album, but as an emcee, he is always going to bring the heat. Even his rhyme style has remained very consistent over the course of his career. That’s not to say he hasn’t grown. He’s gotten better at perfecting his signature flow. His control over his breathing has allowed him to improve the way he rhymes, and his ability to rhyme over varied production is unmatched. But, strictly speaking, he’s been very consistent over the course of his career.

Now, let’s compare Chino XL to somebody like Lupe Fiasco who dropped two classic albums in Food & Liquor and The Cool before coming back with Lasers. The thing about Lasers is that it is not a bad album because of the more electronic and pop sound, which is the main reason people say he sold out on that album. For me, Lasers is lackluster because Lupe dumbed down his lyrics. While he still has a specific point of view that he rhymes from on that album, the lyrics themselves are too simplistic to really make us think the way his first two albums did. I always looked at Lupe as such an innovator when it came to mainstream hip-hop music because he was able to beat the system and give us catchy hooks with accessible production and lyrics that had a much deeper meaning than the repetitive, monotonous mainstream musical landscape that is mainstream rap. It took Lupe years before he regained his form and came back with an absolute masterpiece with Tetsuo & Youth. Even if we look at what Lupe did with Drogas Light earlier this year, which sparked fan outrage because of the mainstream production and overall trap sound of the album, Lupe remained true to his roots and infused his lyrics with multiple meanings that took time to decipher. While Lupe experimented with a new sound, it felt genuine in execution because of the content. Drogas Light just sounded more genuine than Lasers which simply felt like a label mandate.

Mike: That is quite the insight in the world of hip hop. My area of “expertise” lies more under the umbrella of hard rock/heavy metal, and the one band that really drives me up a tree when it comes to their musical evolution (or lack thereof) is AC/DC. Don’t get me wrong… it’s not that I hate them, I just don’t think they’ve really grown as a band. The one change they’ve made throughout their 40+ year history was Brian Johnson taking over as lead vocalist after original singer Bon Scott passed away in 1980. It’s not so much that it’s a bad thing that AC/DC has stayed consistent throughout their entire career, but I can only really listen to them in moderation. As a fan of more progressive metal bands like Dream Theater, Periphery, and Mastodon, I have far less interest in what essentially boils down to variations of “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black.” Nick, do you have any examples of extreme metal acts that have been jogging in one place throughout their career?

Nick: On one hand, you can find bands like Cannibal Corpse and The Black Dahlia Murder. A new album from these bands is what it is. With Cannibal Corpse, we may have come a long way from songs off Butchered at Birth or The Bleeding, and every album from 2006’s Kill onwards arguably gets more technical. But, ultimately, they make Cannibal Corpse records. The Black Dahlia Murder, with their earlier stuff, were far more raw. However, when you get to albums like Deflorate, Ritual, and, especially, Everblack, they have a successfully consistent melodic death metal influence. But, in other cases, you get bands that are stagnating and flat-out insulting to metal.

One big example of this is Attila (or as I like to call them, “The Worst Band in Heavy Metal”). I can understand wanting to listen to a fun party band, but that’s why Motley Crue and Steel Panther exist. Attila, like Suicide Silence, fall under deathcore. However, you can’t really indicate any of the death-metal influences that deathcore should have. Where bands like Despised Icon and Carnifex are influenced by the likes of Devourment and Dying Fetus, Attila is more influenced by Lil’ Wayne, Attack Attack, and the worst parts of Limp Bizkit. When all you’re doing is playing the same generic open chord breakdown under insipid lyrics that make Asking Alexandria sound like Testament, there’s a problem. Other than adding the occasional decent solo, there is nothing new being presented here.

Another example is found in Emmure, which can be best described as metal’s Insane Clown Posse. How can I make fun of a walking punchline? In the words of Roastmater General Jeff Ross, “how do you roast charcoal?” Much like Attila, there is very little to no death metal influence in their brand of “deathcore.” Arguably, there is more nu metal influence (specifically Limp Bizkit) to them. However, unlike Attila where they’ve added guitar solos to their sound. Emmure decide to get members of bands more technical than them and not even utilize them. They really do get progressively more basic, redundant, and offensive (literally opening their latest album with a song eloquently titled, “Bring A Gun To School”) every year.

Keeping a signature sound and sticking with it is much like evolving and trying to do something new. You do have to walk that fine line of either writing “Back In Black” for the 27th time or writing a song like “Threat Level No. 3.” By the end of the day, I care more about if you wrote a good album.

Mike: Nick, you just hit the nail on the head. It’s all a balancing act when it comes to bands developing their style. You don’t want to stray too far from your original sound, nor do you want to keep jogging in one place. Finding that balance is, in my opinion, the best way for bands to maintain a long-lasting career, gaining new fans without alienating the old ones. Does anyone else have any final thoughts they’d like to share before we wrap things up?

Musa: Art should be an extension of the artist, so I feel that, whether an artist evolves their sound or remains consistent, the art itself should sound genuine. I feel like when an artist isn’t genuine in their music, we can instantly tell. However, an equally important problem arises when artists remain in the same headspace on their first album and their last album.

Eminem is a solid example of an artist who has struggled with this his entire career, because we as an audience have no idea what we want from him. When Eminem created songs like “Rock Bottom” and “Kim,” he was going through personal turmoil that forced him to put his thoughts on record, venting through his music. With Eminem in his 40s, when he rhymes about those same topics that got him famous using his Slim Shady persona, it simply sounds fake because that same personal turmoil isn’t there to influence those words. For me, personally, the reason that I will always stick up for Relapse, his most maligned album, is because it sounds like he is exploring the inner depths of his own psychology and putting it on wax. It sounds like a Cronenberg-ian psychological hellscape, and through that, we see Eminem deal with his inner demons through sick, twisted lyrics over dark, horror-sounding production. Relapse is an album that feels genuine, while Recovery felt too pop-infused, feel-goody, and MMLP2 felt both genuine and contrived as we progressed from song to song. Relapse is the last time that Eminem sounded truly like himself.

All of that brings me right back around to One More Light. Honestly, I’ve been going back and forth on this, but I think that I have concluded that, oddly enough, this new Linkin Park album is alright. It sounds like a Linkin Park album from a lyrical standpoint, and the way each individual track ebbs and flows still feels familiar. The music behind the lyrics might be jarring, but once you get in the right mindset and accept the fact that this is what Linkin Park wanted to do, the album sounds decent. I’ll even go as far as to say it sounds pretty good. This is Linkin Park’s version of an accessible pop album – lyrically similar to their previous work, but sonically different. While a lot of their fans get up in arms, for me it just works.

Musical evolution is going to happen no matter what, whether you’re looking for a bold new sound or a signature trademark for the rest of your career. I really do think both can be done well, but it still needs to sound like an album the band can make. I wouldn’t want Cannibal Corpse to suddenly make a doom metal album in the style of Paradise Lost. Nor would I want someone like Danzig to take a shot at making a grindcore album. If you can slowly introduce us to the idea of a new sound, it can really work. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Trivium, Machine Head (Through The Ashes Of Empires onward), Carcass, Children Of Bodom, Anthrax, and others have done it beautifully.

Linkin Park’s career isn’t going to be hurt by One More Light. I think Hybrid Theory has sold enough copies that their great grandkids are set for life. The problem is if they want people to care about what they’re doing still, they need to really finetune their song writing. If Linkin Park wants to do a pop album, they need to introduce the ideas of it to us over the course of a few albums. Not just flip-flopping between nu metal, stadium/arena rock, electronic rock, pop “rock,” rap rock, then just straight up pop. Plus, I wouldn’t want them to just do an album that sounds like Hybrid Theory and Meteora. As Musa said, we can tell when an artist isn’t being genuine with their music. I think they could do something that the fans would like while keeping themselves happy. My advice for Linkin Park will not be go back to Hybrid Theory. It’s do better!

Mike: Well, I think that’s a good a place to end our discussion. Thank you, Nick and Musa for joining me in this epic musical conversation. You guys know your stuff, and I would love to have you guys return for more discussions down the road. Now I want to hear from you, the reader! Keep the conversation going over on the main Geeks + Gamers Facebook group, as well as our spin-off group, Music to my Ears!

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