I have been to a lot of shows in my life, and each one holds a special spot in my heart for one reason or another. The sights, the tingling olfactory sensations that I pick up at different venues for different genres of music, the way the room feels, the way the crowd acts both during the set and to one another. Those experiences are all unique to themselves, and that’s the beauty of a live show. However, I’ve found that over the years, shows fall into one of two categories: chaotic madness or calculated design. Let me preface this by saying that in no way is this an admission of preferring one to another, nor is it a way to influence your judgment about the bands that I will name below; it is merely an observations that I have been very keen to, and something that has rang true as the years have gone by each and every time.
In order to explain my specific observation, I must first make you privy to what a live show was like when metal and hard rock were in their infancy. While I was not there, I can gather what it was like from watching live concerts, talking to people who were there, and understanding the times. In the 60s and 70s, rock music was still very much a “live” music. Much of the music was recorded live, and, until The Beatles, overdubs were rarely used. What you heard in the studio was nearly identical to what you heard live. While some bands might change guitar tunings or fluctuate on the music here and there, for the most part, the music was a live performance of a studio record, if that makes any sense. The two were mutually exclusive at that point in time.
When the 1980s rolled around, and music got heavier and more experimental, things began to change. While bands such as Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Judas Priest all thrived on live performances that mimicked their recorded performances, a new breed of bands were emerging in the hardcore and experimental scenes that didn’t feel like playing by the rules. Black Flag is a great example of one of the first bands that really adopted the “our stage is your stage” mantra, and Swans furthered this by having live performances that included long experimental jams, lyrical fluctuations, and more of a direct focus on the “live” aspect of the live show than the music itself. When you think about it, the latter is a great example of some of the things going on today, but we’ll arrive at that later.
As the 90s and 2000s rolled around, it became extremely gentrified. Music became separated into the two camps we’re talking about today, where one side thrives on perfection in their live shows, coupling authenticity with laser accuracy in playing their parts note for note as it sounded on the record. Other bands seemed to focus more on the performance and less on the music, shifting most of their energy into involving the crowd, incorporating wild stage antics, and improvising the music live to make the show something other than an exact carbon copy of their music recorded music. However, if a band in either camp attempted to switch sides, it would be a horrible result for not only the band involved, but also for the audience. So why is this?
Let’s observe the former camp, bands that have a requirement to meet, so to speak, when playing live. If I’m going to see a metal show with the likes of, say, Revocation, Periphery, Dream Theater, or Psycroptic on the bill at some point, I go in there thinking that the show should basically be a louder experience of what I hear on the record. For me, I understand what lies ahead of me at the venue. I know that these bands with play with extreme accuracy to match their studio albums to a T, dotting every last “i” there is to dot. If there is any sort of improvisation, it will either come in the form of an extended guitar solo, a drum solo, or fun little jam at the very end of the song. It would be absurd to expect them to break out into a free jam in the middle of one of their songs. The same way you wouldn’t see Dream Theater do a jam in the middle of a technical song such as “Constant Motion”, you wouldn’t see Psycroptic break out into an all out jazz experimental section midway through their set. Either scenario would detract from the show, and would likely leave many audience members silently wondering what the blood heck was going on, especially if the band is not adept in the slightest when it comes to live improv.
Now, on to the other side of the tracks. I’m on my way to see a show that consists of Lightning Bolt, Zach Hill, Dave Matthews Band, and Phish (yes, I am aware that the last two acts would never be playing with the former two bands). In this instance, I would go into the show expecting improvisation. I’d expect it to be an all out jam session where the bands could turn a simple 5 minute track into a 30 minute long jam session using the same motifs and chords throughout as refrains. I’d even expect it to be slightly sloppy because of this, but instead of being put off by this, I’d actually be welcoming it. At this show, I’d want it to be live. This type of show is meant to serve more as a performance that a live recording (read: it’s meant to be sloppy and all over the place as opposed to cookie-cutter like the examples in the former paragraph). These bands are ones that tend to improv in the studio to find what works, and sometimes these bands even record their material in one take with no overdubs, much like it was done back in the earlier days as pointed out before.
But before we wrap things up, one important point must be discussed. Allow me to point you towards the Florida death metal scene in the early 1990s. These bands relied solely on their drummers to keep time, and the end result ends up sounding a bit sloppy, but without the carelessness that the word normally brings. Why does this not fall into the chaotic category? The reality is that these bands were not trying to sound chaotic. While they were playing heavy chaotic music, their ultimate goal as a studio, and as a live, act was to perform very well and to have a very tight sound, both in the studio and live. These tempo fluctuations and minor missteps become a distant memory when you remember how far ahead of their time these bands were. Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Death, and Suffocation could not get away with that stuff had they been bands 20 years in the future, nor would a producer allow them to perform on a record in such a way in the studio that it comes out messy as a final product. Rather, this became a signature of the early death metal sound, and is almost nostalgic in nature for many. While the bands have tightened their act over the years, the original studio albums are a testament to the originality and forward thinking way that was death metal.
The same can be said for early grindcore when compared to grindcore now. Napalm Death have clearly tightened their ropes as the decades have passed, yet their earlier material still holds a quality that many love, and thousands of fans will still point to any of their first few albums as modern classics as the progenitors of modern grindcore music paved the way for bands of the future. Nowadays, grindcore can sound so stale, because it becomes robotic at times. Pig Destroyer retain the old school feel that Napalm had back in the day, and Rotten Sound are able to do so while maintaining a very strict speed throughout the duration of their songs. It’s a small touch that is refreshing to hear, and serves as an homage to the past while keeping the future alive and well.
If you’re going to a show, you know what to expect. I won’t be walking into a Decapitated show wondering how loose they’re going to play and how they’ll improvise, and I also wouldn’t walk into a letlive. show expecting them to not sound like they’re doing acrobatics and running while playing their instruments. It’s just not natural to assume that, nor is it fair to any of the bands that I have listed. What is fair to say, however, is that these camps will likely stay divided by a thick line for the foreseeable future, and honestly, it’s best that way. It helps keep things fresh, and it makes the shows worth seeing.