Production styles seem to stir up significant differences of opinion amongst metal fans. Of course, every band and album has its own somewhat unique flavor, but I’d like to discuss the two biggest opposite extremes in metal production: sludginess and gloss. Let’s take a look at some tunes that exemplify how these sonic qualities can influence the listener’s enjoyment of metal.
This track from YOB’s Atma is a great example of how lo-fi production can give doom metal a murky, evil vibe. It feels like a mud monster opening its foul jaws, or something. I think that this kind of sloshy production works wonders for slow, churning music like doom metal. Clean production can work in the style, but the grinding, primal production YOB employ is usually more to my taste when I’m on a doom metal kick.
Many black metal purists swear by “cold” production, but I feel that fuzziness just gets in the way of the frantic music on records like Transylvanian Hunger. For the most part, I’ve always felt black metal lends itself moreso to the crisper, cleaner sounds explored by bands like Immortal and Emperor on their more recent material. So sue me!
Youtube’s audio smashing is unkind to Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction, but I feel that this record is the logical apex of glossy metal production. With some nice headphones, you can hear everything (well, ALMOST everything) that’s going on at any given moment on the album, no matter how crazy the arrangements and technical the riffs get. Shiny production can really bring out good qualities in music that’s well-composed, rich, and intricate…
…however, ultra-clean production does no favors to one-dimensional music. I might actually like Brain Drill more if they weren’t covered in so much unnecessary studio sheen (but probably not). When the focus of the production is amplifying the degree of robotic, mathematical precision on display and not enhancing any interesting textures, that coat of gloss on the mix is just annoying. I’d rather hear this stuff if it sounded a little more organic… maybe I’m missing the point, but, hey, it’s just my opinion. This problem extends beyond tech-death; many melodeath and metalcore bands fell prey to the “computer metal” trap in the mid-2000’s.
As I get older, I feel like I’ve been placing less value on clean production. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at albums like Baroness’ Blue Record or Torche’s Harmonicraft when I was in high school. Even though those albums aren’t super-murky, they evoke a different aesthetic than the one I was into at the time (e.g. Dream Theater, new In Flames, etc). Nowadays I find that except for a select few artists, I prefer bands that remind me of a dingy concert venue with old speakers on full blast and the bass pumping through the roof. I tend to pass on “djent” bands and most other hyper-calculated progressive metal stuff because for me, the amount of processing power that goes into the mix robs the music of some essential human element.
I also find that over time, bands that actively change their production style generally always move from sludginess to clarity. Perhaps that’s simply a function of increased finances, or the quest for mainstream acceptance. Still, I have a hard time believing the gritty, reverberating, untamed guitars and drums on Gojira’s From Mars To Sirius weren’t actively crafted to bring to mind a big, open atmosphere compared to the more mechanical, starker tones on their new effort L’Enfant Sauvage. The music itself is not what evokes these two different sensations so much as the sonic qualities of the mix. I’m not sure which I prefer, really! Mastodon are another band whose sound has moved from grit toward gloss over time, although their production-based changes accompany a more significant musical shift.
Curiously, I can’t think of any bands who have moved in the opposite direction – from clean to dirty production. Maybe I’m forgetting an obvious one? Help me out here! I’d love to see some discussion in the comments section about what kind of production you prefer and why. Has your opinion changed over time?