Saturday, 17 November 2012

Rings of Saturn Controversy: Constructedness, Authenticity and Metal.

Recently while in Japan I read via Metal Sucks of a flash in a pan controversy that brought quite a lot of social media attention to Rings of Saturn’s new album Dingir. The eye of the storm was around whether or not the band played at half speed and then sped up the slow tempo recordings to match the desired BPM of the overall composition. This had metal purists raging: “If you can’t play it live…” and “Pro-tools/DAWs are such a crutch”. In my opinion the band’s response to this controversy was somewhat less than optimum, they played the internet chat room yell back in a loud voice and show outrage card. This for most of us who have been on the net for a while equates to an admission of guilt. To me, the truth of the controversy is less important than the questions it raises around constructedness and authenticity in a post-album, post-label age of musical consumption.

First of all, let me take you back to this post. Here I talked about metal made by people who are not metal heads. That is, outsiders looking in. The brief version is that metal created from outside positions runs a serious authenticity risk: metal heads know their metal and they know if you are faking it. Sometimes however, when the ingredients are just right, as is the case with some of the aging djentlemen (Tesseract, Textures Vildhjarta), these products are no longer a foreign form sounding similar to metal but rather a sophisticated hybridisation which forces the genre into forms and directions previously unknown and unimaginable. The linchpin of this experimentation is technology. We can do now what was impossible. The same is true for what we see and hear. It makes sense then that there is very much a possibility of post-performance metal.

I use the term “post-performance” to refer a burgeoning trend in which artists are rejecting the “play-you-ass-off-to-earn-peanuts-but-be-on-a-major-label” paradigm. Ask any metal band these days how they make their money and the answer will be “shows and merchandise”. The problem with this setup is that without booking experience or a savvy agent, setting up a profitable run of shows can be very difficult. Then there are unexpected disasters from the mild (fuel prices go up, tour bus breaks down) to the wild (road accident, theft) which can in a single event sink an operation running close to the break-even mark.

Post-performance metal meanwhile adopts a different logic. I came across this ideas after reading an interview with Dawnbringer’s Chris Black on Invisible Oranges. Black articulated an opinion quite at odds with the tour/merch trap outlined above. Due to circumstances in his own life and personal preference, he chooses to eschew touring and focus entirely on creating a memorable, high quality product. 

As a child, music was to me something that you experienced by radio, albums, or playing it yourself on an instrument. And that usually meant experiencing it alone, so again, that’s just normal to me.

This is a man who literally is doing it all by himself. He has created a fair relationship with the excellent ProfoundLore label and retains full control over his product.  

Naturally there are exceptions such as Rise Above Records who work hard to generate mystique primarily through performance. They create supply and demand bottlenecks and have developed their brand to such an extent that a new release is equivalent to a vinyl purchase.

So what does all of this have to do with Rings of Saturn?

ROS, in spite of their youth, seem to be stuck in a rather outdated metal mindset in which constructedness is a wholly negative value and authenticity based on live performance (underground credibility) is positive. Kind of like when straight dudes are called “gay” and go about proving their hetero authenticity through displays of hyper masculinity (if only they knew, huh?). ROS could have avoided this whole Metal Archives/ANUS trip by taking a page from the djentleman’s textbook: DIY = constructedness and attention to detail, a highly constructed end product holds value especially if it has riffs, leads and ideas that shred. By refusing to position themselves within the crippling discourse of pre-Twenty-first century metal authenticity they would be able to exceed expectations and concentrate energies on perfecting their sound and bringing innovation to metal from unexpected directions.

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