Saturday, April 10, 2010

Day 13: A song that is a guilty pleasure

I'm not fond of the idea of "guilty pleasure" music. For starters, there's the cognitive dissonance in the very phrase - if I squint, I can see it applying to, say, a particularly distasteful sexual kink/fantasy, but music? Fuck off. If you like something, that's because there's something about it which you find enjoyable, in which case why feel guilty?

That's rather borne out by the sort of examples which tend to crop up in "guilty pleasure" lists - they're invariably dominated by commercial pop acts. The very notion exists primarily so that oh-so-serious fans of so-called "REAL" music (ie., music produced by white men with guitars, bass and drums, none of this synthy crap) can admit to enjoying pop music without having to acknowledge that some of it might be, you know...good. Which, since I think a lot of pop music is very good indeed, offends me at a fairly base level.

All of which said (and here's where I contradict myself horribly), I can come up with a few fairly-good examples if I twist my mind around the term a little. It goes back to my comments last week about how the only songs I really hate tend to be by bands/artists I otherwise love, because that means that I care so much more when they produce something crap. I can work with that. So, resisting the obvious urge to go with something from Sandinista...

Grind/Death Metal pioneers Carcass are one of my favourite bands, no question. Their earliest work is a little raw for my tastes, mind - I can appreciate grindcore in limited doses, but find it a little too hard to listen to for whole albums at a time, and Carcass' first few records are good examples of grindcore at its most inaccessibly brutal. Once they mellowed slightly, though? Magnificent band. To be fair, I used to have a similar prejudice against just about all extreme metal - I could appreciate the musical sophistication, but those cookie-monster vocals? The often-sludgy production? That intense, domineering drum sound? No, took a while for me to come round - and even then, it wasn't until I discovered Swedish prog-metal behemoths Opeth, the first band I'd heard who successfully combined 'clean' and 'growled' vocals as complementary elements of their overall sound, that I really started to appreciate the coarse, harsh sound of growled metal vocals as anything but a hindrance to the enjoyment of the music itself. Give it a chance, is probably what I'm trying to say here. It took me a while, but I'm glad I did.

Carcass developed, though, as they moved further away from the gore/grind obsessions of their early work, pushing their sound towards slightly-more melodic, conventionally-structured songs. In doing so, they inadvertently ended up at the cutting-edge of a developing genre - the melodic, highly-technical guitar work and song structures, combined with the still-brutal riffing, drumming and vocals would prove hugely-influential on melodic death metal, throughout the '90s and beyond. In fact, I'd rate Carcass right up there with Death (seminal Florida death metal group, probably set to feature in a blog entry of their own later on in this project) among the most significant figures in the development of DM into a musical form which I enjoy. Their third and fourth albums - 1991's Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious and 1993's Heartwork are, for my money, among the finest heavy metal records ever produced, and somewhere between the two records' contrasting styles - Necroticism is noticeably rawer, less polished and more aggressive, while there's a cleaner, more melodic side to Heartwork - lies my Platonic Ideal for Death Metal. I wouldn't want to have to choose between the two albums, and fortunately, I don't have to.

Unfortunately, as so often happens when a band's career progression develops along such a linear path, they took it too far. Their final album, Swansong (1996) essentially completes the transition into a polished, radio-friendly sound...and it doesn't work. It's certainly not a "sell-out", or anything equally-trite - it would have been far more dishonest for the band to continue forcing themselves to adhere to the extremity of their earlier music when that clearly wasn't what they were interested in doing, anyway - but still, it's a failure. The ugliness which had given texture to the more commercially-inclined material on Heartwork is almost completely absent here, and without it, there's an emptiness to the music. There are still some good riffs, Jeff Walker remains a strong vocalist, and the band are still impeccably tight. But it lacks 'oomph', for want of a better term - if I had to sum the sound of Swansong up in a slightly-clumsy soundbite, I'd probably say something along the lines of "It's like Megadeth meets post-Bon Scott AC/DC, but with heavier vocals". Which it isn't, really, but if you listen to the record, you might just see what I'm getting at anyway.

'Rotting In The Free World', today's song (and yes, that's a terrible pun), is the first song on the album. It encapsulates so much of what I don't like about the whole enterprise...and yet, I can't help but sort of like it. It gets my foot tapping, even as I'm thinking about how much less effective it is than any of the band's earlier work. Like the latterday Rolling Stones, there's a certain charm in hearing them go through the motions - yes, Keith Richards could construct those open-tuned, hammer-on-hammer-off riffs in his sleep by now, and very probably does, but he can still play the fuckers better than anyone else in the world. Same goes for Carcass, for the duration of this song, at least - never mind the manifestly-inferior songwriting, just listen to the band.

I still don't feel especially guilty about enjoying it, though. Sorry.

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