Death Rock

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Treble's editor airs his grievances

Metz isn’t going to change the world.

The Toronto post-hardcore trio, whose debut album released earlier this year packs a glorious wallop like few others can, does not play music that’s particularly accessible to broad audiences. They’re a bit too abrasive for radio, and while their song “Wet Blanket” has a video, they’re not really the type to pen a breakout, crossover single. Not yet, anyway.

And yet, while having my epidermis scorched during the band’s 30-minute set in San Diego last week, I couldn’t help but feel that I was seeing and hearing something important — something alive. That’s what rock music, when done right, is supposed to do. It’s a source of invigoration and agitation. It’s provocative and menacing. It’s fun and it’s always on the brink of spiraling hopelessly, gracelessly out of control.

As the precipice of year-end lists lurks just over the horizon, and a proper survey of the journey is in order, I’m struck by just how much noise guitar slingers made this year. I’m not talking about publicity or hype, however; I’m talking about ferocious, honest-to-goodness, ear-splitting noise. The Men, who actually took a step back and reined in their noise rock overload, still turned in one of the year’s most delicious dins in Open Your Heart. Cloud Nothings said “fuck-all” to their lo-fi indie pop sound, high-tailed it to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios and found some effective inspiration in Slint and The Wipers. And …Trail of Dead, with half a decade’s worth of prog experiments out of their system, got back to doing what they do best — wrecking shit with style. (And this is before we even get into metal.)

From where I’m sitting, rock music seems to have had a pretty good year. In fact, I’d say that it’s been one of the better years for loud, noisy rock records than any of the past five years (Fucked Up was able to salvage two of them single-handedly). In spite of this, more music journalists than I care to mention spent a handy chunk of their time hand-wringing over the already beaten horse of whether or not rock `n’ roll is dead.

To be fair, 2012 is mostly on the long tail of a 2011 trend of concern trolling about rock’s inevitable and long-awaited death. The Guardian revisited the topic last year, which then got Rocksound knee jerking right back at them. Rock’s death was the subject of a panel at SXSW, and probably will be every year until the earth implodes. And yet, a hoard of Grammy wins from the Foo Fighters led to the inevitable question of whether this obituary was premature. And just to top it off, The Guardian revisited the topic and found that, maybe, rock was healthier than initially thought.

And it goes on like this. Had you asked me nine months ago, I might have conceded that rock was dead on the condition that everyone else just find something new to write about. But it would have been disingenuous. I understand the arguments — only bands in their sixties are selling out stadium tours, the bulk of the Billboard Top 200 chart positions are occupied by country and pop singers, and EDM is usurping the throne once held by guitar-based bands — I just don’t see what it has to do with the vitality of an abstract idea. If you can define “Rock” then that might help to convince me that if it’s not dead or worse, it could at least use a nap.

There’s no question that the Billboard charts mostly reflect a record-buying market that isn’t champing at the bit for loud guitar records, but if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that it’s a little more complicated than that. Right now, the top selling records in America mostly comprise Taylor Swift’s new album, a hearty blend of corny Christmas albums, a lot of country, a two-year-old Katy Perry album, Taylor Swift’s last two albums, Kidz Bop and Journey’s Greatest Hits, which it appears has been on the Billboard charts for 239 weeks. So, essentially it’s exactly what it looked like in the ’90s, only with more Taylor Swift and less Chant.

And yet, there are still rock albums stuck between the cracks — Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muse (their “dubstep” record or whatever), Green Day, The Killers, the Black Keys, Cradle of Filth, The xx (close enough), The Sword, Matchbox Twenty (it’s rock, what do you want from me?), Alabama Shakes and, staging a mighty coup at number 188, Tame Impala. And, perhaps most importantly, Mumford and Sons, whose sophomore album sold more than a half-million copies in its first week. But Mumford, who are easily the biggest “new” rock band in the world right now, aren’t even really rock — they’re “folk” (or, per David Greenwald, “festivalcore“). And if there’s a person alive that can tell me they thought folk music wasn’t “dead” in the same way rock supposedly always is, I probably wouldn’t believe them.

The simple fact of the matter is that boiling down the vital signs of a pretty broad realm of music to sales figures and chart positions tends to ignore the big-picture view, which is admittedly more nuanced. The record industry has been in a holding pattern of mediocre sales figures for a long time, and that applies across the board. Pop, hip-hop and electronic albums are also not flying off the shelves at the rate they once were, so why should rock music be any different. But for that matter, what, exactly, is rock? Is it Mumford & Sons? Is it the Black Keys? Or is it Skrillex, the EDM giant whose distorted bass drops have more in common with rock music than the marketing department would have you believe?

Rock music is a lot more ephemeral than simply being some outdated ideal of a group of long-haired dudes on stage, stroking their fretboards. It’s actually a fairly hollow term, but it takes on the qualities of whatever you assign it. So, if you think the blues-based stadium roar of AC/DC is dead, then you might be right, but I wouldn’t be so quick to cover it with earth. And if you think that the bowel-obstruction wheeze of post-grunge is dead, you might be right, but that might just be wishful thinking. And if you think that indie rock is dead… well, it barely registered to begin with, but it’s still out there.

But I’d like to offer a little perspective. In 1991 Entertainment Weekly‘s Dave Marsh published an essay on this very topic, in which he expresses cautious optimism ahead of new albums by U2, R.E.M. and Guns `n’ Roses, which seems almost quaint in retrospect. So, we’re probably doomed to go through this cycle again. Rock music certainly isn’t producing anything as simultaneously critically and commercially successful as it did in the early ’90s, and it’s likely to stay that way, at least temporarily. But that doesn’t mean that lots of bands aren’t making a go of it, or for that matter, actually creating something good.

Maybe it won’t make a difference in anyone’s paycheck, and it sure as hell doesn’t make a good lede, but as long as there are kids out there who marvel at the opportunity to make some noise in their parents’ garage, then rock `n’ roll, as flawed and afflicted as it might be, is still alive and kicking.

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