Phil Weller is guitarist in Manchester prog-metal band Prognosis. In this opinion piece, Phil muses on a selection of artists who have, and continue to polarise opinion with each passing release.
It’s a familiar story; a band with a dedicated, adoring following releases a new album that deviates, even if it’s ever so slightly, from the sound their fans fell in love with and people react like the band has betrayed them. They go mental. It’s happened several times in 2019 already, but it’s an age-old trend. But me? I’m on the other side of the fence: I love bands who polarise opinion.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the argument, if it was a band’s brutal riffs and vocals that growl and grumble like Satan’s belly after a vindaloo that found you sticking their entire back catalogue on repeat, sadistically getting hammered by their music, if they then release a record of sugary pop music, you’re going to feel a little let down. When lofty expectations, often heightened by your addiction to the band, are dashed, it can be a really crushing thing. For me, however, both in the music I listen to and the songs I write, I’m always looking for diversity, growth and honest musical expression.
Norwegian prog metal band Leprous are the latest band to be tarnished with this unjust reaction to their evolving sound. Even before any singles were released from Pitfalls, vocalist Einar Solberg had issued a warning statement, this album wasn’t going to be like any other Leprous album, it was, in all, going to be an album of Solberg exorcising his troubles and emotions that have haunted him over the past few years.
Lyrically he would not be hiding behind metaphors; this was a brutally honest and vulnerable album that their vocalist felt was important, for his own sake, to make. Here is an artist creating art and music for the very purpose it was always meant for; expression and catharsis. Yet when the singles began to drop, so did the negative comments from riff hunters bemoaning their lack of aggression in favour of something much more delicate, detailed and heartfelt. The band are wearing their hearts on their collective sleeve, vying to do something different, letting the darkness of their personal life dictate the form of their music, regardless of their stylistic past and I love that. It’s emotively charged and for me, that’s what’s most important. They could recycle the heaviness of previous records, but that wouldn’t be honest and the music would sound soulless.
There are countless other examples too. God knows how many memes I’ve seen by now about missing the days when Opeth wrote growling death metal, but when a band releases new music, I want it to be exactly that. Reinvent the wheel, redefine your sound, tweak, amend, evolve. Opeth’s material, from the prog rock majesty of 2011’s Heritage through to their latest effort, In Cauda Venenum, has been a joy to listen to unfurling. Besides, why would you want Mikael Åkerfeldt to growl when his singing voice is that good? His voice on Universal Truth stirs my soul; in fact, he is simply imperious across the entire record. Lyrically he is razor-sharp and his delivery is searing.
When I listen to music I want to hear something I haven’t heard before, I want to hear different approaches to melodies, riffs, choruses, overall song structures. I want to soak it all in and get inspired so I can write better music myself, while also staying true to my musical self. The thing is, it’s the same people who bemoan a band’s change in sound that are also first in line to slate a band who simply toes the line of their older albums for being boring and predictable. For me, new Opeth music is always a treasure trove of discovery and inspiration, of unpredictability and eccentricity.
Mastodon, Muse, Steven Wilson and Rush are all other fantastic examples of bands shedding their skin, revealing a different, oft more experimental side. Grace Under Pressure is probably my favourite Rush album and that’s because it’s different, it stands out. It shows a band with maturity and versatility, its synth textures and lighter edge marries perfectly with Geddy Lee’s hope pocked lyrics, something I have always striven to do with the stories embedded within my own lyrics for Prognosis.
Muse, my all-time favourite band, are not the band today that I fell in love with, but that doesn’t matter. When I first heard Origin Of Symmetry I was blown away by its sheer bombast and absurdity. 2018’s Simulation Theory is a far cry from that guitar powered sound, but it’s evolutionary. Those early Muse albums are timeless, an immensely important part of my childhood and so a mere repetition of that formula would see those records lose their uniqueness.
When they put out Drones in 2015, a return to a more gritty, power trio kind of sound, headlining Download on the back of it, they silenced the critics and sceptics who had dismissed them as merely a pop act – although that is a misjudged statement in my opinion, as 2nd Law is an evocative and complex prog rock record that, were it released by a prog rock band, would have been lauded as such. Plus they riff with the best of rock’s elite. So, when the news came out that Muse would be releasing a follow up to Drones’ balls-out rock affair, it was obvious to me that the next batch of songs was going to be poppier and more synth orientated because Muse are a band that doesn’t stand still. They purposefully invert their last step. Every new record is a curveball, a breath of fresh air and, even if a record falls short of my expectation, I admire the effort and the process behind it. Stepping away from your comfort zone is the bravest, most difficult thing any artist, musical or otherwise, can do. I’d much rather that than an Absolution Mark II. It creates a rich plethora of albums and styles to choose from.
It’s the same reason for my undying love for Mastodon. I couldn’t tell you my favourite Mastodon album as they’re all so different; if I’m in the mood for something raw and brutal, there’s Remission, whilst Crack The Skye provides the proggier, more expansive side of things, with latest release Emperor of Sand all about chunky riffs and super-catchy vocals. There’s even Cold Dark Place which flirts with Brent Hinds’ country music upbringing, taking it to a suitably shadowy realm. That, to me, is an exciting discography worth revisiting time and time again.
There are plenty out there who hate modern Mastodon because they’ve stopped screaming, in tandem with their ability to write vocal hooks and melodies as gigantean as the beast they’re named after, but those people seem to forget that, with the release of every new record, their older, heavier material doesn’t dissolve into nothingness. It still exists, so go listen to it.
The thing is, Mastodon have always been very emotive with their music. Crack The Skye is one giant requiem for drummer Brann Dailor’s sister, whilst Emperor… is the musical culmination of every band member being affected, in some way or another, by death and cancer over the years leading up to its release. Cold Dark Place is a reflection of Hinds’ broken heart and heritage. Again, we are seeing emotions dictate the music, we are hearing their souls, naked and vulnerable yet proud and powerful. And that’s an incredible thing.
As for Steven Wilson, for a man who has made a career out of writing music capable of making even the toughest of grown men cry, why the hell can’t he pop up, out of nowhere, with a dance-tastic, ABBA flavoured pop banger in the major key? Variety is the spice of life.
I’ve always been of the belief that music should leave an impact upon you, it should provoke a reaction. Whether that’s emotional or physical, it doesn’t matter. Even if a song sucks so badly it repulses you and sends you into a keyboard warrior state all over Facebook, it is still getting a reaction from you and that, for me, is the most important thing. If a song washes over you with no effect whatsoever, then it’s not worth the score it’s written on, so I welcome every musical curveball out there. Nile doing a K-pop album? Napalm Death writing funk? Carly Rae Jepson going grindcore? Why not? If such a change in musical direction comes from the heart and not from a rapidly emptying wallet, or a vain attempt to steal a few headlines in the press, then I’m all for it because, as with the reason the new Leprous album is as stirringly tremendous as it is, music is a personal thing. Yes, it’ll scrutinised by the world, every nook and cranny turned over, inspected and reviewed by the masses, but good music is music of the soul and good music is the most magical thing on the planet. If artists wrote only for their fans then the world would be a much poorer place.
Many thanks to Phil for taking the time to share his opinions on these excellent bands and the directions they take.