Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Sonic Reducer

As the universe expands, so do genres. They splinter and they grow. Or at least that’s one way of telling their story. Genres also reduce. The pioneers in any given field usually draw upon a variety of influences while their followers’ focus on their most stereotypical features. We can witness this in heavy metal. Black Sabbath had strong blues, folk and beat music influences, but these elements were strained out by their successors. In punk too, the second and third waves of bands were generally content to draw upon the Ramones ‘buzz-saw’ blueprint while ignoring the Ramones’ wider influences, such as girl groups at the Osmonds. Something similar is happening with EDM. Disco, electro, gospel and Krautrock each fed into the house music of the 1980s, but modern dance music seems to look no further than Faithless and Sash!  A similar reduction is present in lyric writing. The Beatles drew on the Goon Show and Lewis Carroll; the Smiths incorporated Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delany. Their successors merely draw on Lennon and Morrissey.
            I’m not alone in feeling this way. In his recent book Electric Shock, Peter Doggett also makes complaints about heavy metal. He has bands such as Metallica in mind when stating that ‘Where old metal swaggered, new metal lumbered, lurched, ground its opponents beneath its tank tracks – remorseless, crushing, nihilistic’; adding that ‘In its refusal to employ syncopation or any other traits associated with African-American genres, it signalled its alienation from decades of popular music’.
            This mention of decades should make us pause for thought. Sometimes it can feel as though bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were reaching back to ancient precursors. They had mythical figures such as Robert Johnson in their fingertips. But what is the gap between Johnson’s recordings and the first records by these bands? It is about 30 years.
The gap between new metal and old metal stretches at least as far as this. The 40th anniversary celebrations of punk are being prepared. Alarmingly, house music is now at least 30 years old. Why does the gap between old metal and the acoustic blues seem longer than this? One answer is that it spans a greater cultural, technological and musical divide. Could it be that there was simply more going on in the 30-year period between 1936 and 1966 than there has been between 1986 and today? Another answer is that the sonic reducer has always been in place, but we’re more likely to see it in operation when we consider the successors to the music that we grew up with, than we are when we address the precursors to our first great musical loves. I have no doubt that old metal, early punk and Chicago house were each accused of simplification, reduction and betrayal in their time. The musical universe has always advanced by reduction.