Reasons to Be Cheerful (Just Three)

If 2006's musical slate seems bleak, just look to the occasionally goofy but still exhilarating extremes

A few years ago hipsters of the sort now rocking Kode 9 and Corrupted enjoyed flirting with mainstream pop, putting a Justin Timberlake or Tweet album, a "Toxic" or a "Yeah," in their Top 10s. But the palpable shift back to undergroundist values has been facilitated by the fact that overground pop is not coming up with the goods at the moment. Oh, you still get lone loonies claiming merit for Paris Hilton's CD while conscientious generalists urge us to check out modern country, but overall there's been a return to a default-mode rockism that prizes substance, complexity, edge. If TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom represent the beguiling, easy-on-the-ear version of those values, those looking for a harder hit are turning to metal, dubstep, noise.

And there's much to admire about those renegade genres: the seriousness, the earnest aspiration to innovate and overwhelm, the sheer strenuousness and commitment entailed in being a fan. Yet personally I'm ambivalent about all three. (Most of my 2006 faves have a pop tinge: Scritti, Hot Chip, Lady Sovereign.) Noise in particular seems suspect to me, its belief in absolute states of intensity often leading to a sort of aesthetic fascism. Occasionally its impulse to shock and offend leads to puerile flirtations with the political sort, too. To be fair, such dodgy provocations are rarer these days, with noise operators like Yellow Swans and Sunroof more often seeing what they do in terms of chaos worship and ecstatic abstraction. Still, even this equation of lack-of-structure with freedom seems slightly pat and old hat. Dubstep really ought to be right up my exiled-Londoner's street, being the latest product of the city's pirate radio culture. But too much of what I loved about its post-rave precursors has been subtracted: jungle's frenzy, 2step's slinky sensuality, the personality of grime.

And then there's metal. There's a tiny part of me that can't help thinking that if hipsters are looking here for nourishment, things have gotten really desperate. Then I remember I actually have liked some metal myself. As a Sabbath lover and fan of the original doom crew Saint Vitus, it's the slow-and-low end of the current spectrum that hits me: Om's mystical and incantatory Conference of the Birds (like Saint Vitus meets Black Sun Ensemble maybe) and Boris—the latter especially when they don't sound like yet another Japanese homage to Blue Cheer but go into ambient mode, as with much of Altar, their 2006 collaboration with Sunn O))). Other doom exponents tend to sound a bit like Saint Vitus screwed-and-chopped. Beyond the low-frequency quagmire, Pelican seem overly fussy, while Mastodon, consummate in their way, are hardly pushing the metal genre beyond itself.

As a post-punk kid who lived through the blithering idiocy of the new wave of British heavy metal (Iron Maiden, et al), it's hard to shake one's ingrained prejudices completely. Yet it's also true that if the ideals of post-punk live anywhere today, it's in metal. Just check out the world of "real metal," which overlaps and subsumes "hipster metal," but is much vaster and much dafter. The bands featured in magazines like Terrorizer and Decibel are conceptualist and progression-oriented to nutty degrees, at times so serious they're hard to take seriously. The premium set on formal innovation has resulted in sub-generic splintering that surpasses even the hair-splitting neologists and taxonomists of electronic dance culture: goregrind, tech-grind, prog-grind, sludge, drone, crust, brutal death metal (as opposed to technical death metal and melodic death metal), and power metal, and we haven't even touched on the dozen flavors of doom (including funereal doom, stoner doom, gothic doom, and my favorite, retro doom). Extreme metal is a world where 42-minute tracks (often devolving into long stretches of ambient noise) are just standard business, where bands compose concept albums about the Black Death or embark on bizarre postmodern projects of meta-metal that entail cloning Carcass's pioneering sound by studying the group's riff structures with Talmudic intensity. All this fervent experimentalism and genre-splicing makes the overtly post-punk-aligned revivalists of the last several years look like the lightweights they truly are. Of them all, only Liars could qualify for a feature in Terrorizer.

Metal's rise to the forefront of hipster consciousness seems symbolic. If all art aspires to the condition of music, then you might say that all art-music vanguards now aspire to the condition of metal. Recruiting a fresh crop of "soldiers of darkness" each year, metal represents a model of subcultural stamina over the long haul (while also holding the possibility of erupting into the mainstream every seven years or so). If noise and dubstep don't envy metal's infrastructural stability and the fanatical loyalty it commands, they should.

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