We here at Heavy Blog like to ponder the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Is viking metal even a thing? You know, the big stuff. In order to better address such pressing matters, we bring you Heavy Issues: a bi-weekly column by which we plan to get to the bottom of things. But we can’t just do it on our own, we want to know what you think as well. Read our responses below and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.
This week’s question: Which classic album can’t you get into?
Pete: Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (1975)
This might really be more of a criticism of the artist as opposed to the album, but I just really hate Bruce Springsteen. I have no idea why he’s viewed as being as important as he is. Any rationale you can give in defense of Springsteen could be instantly negated by a better example. “Oh Pete, he’s America’s premiere songwriter!” Clearly, you’ve never heard of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan has more classic songs, albums, and history than if Springsteen had 3 careers.
“But Pete! Springsteen is the music of America!” Gimme a break. To me, Springsteen doesn’t even have a signature sound. To a certain extent, it’s sort of true. Springsteen does make this mish-mash of a lot of American music. Country, folk, and good ol’ rock and roll are all thrown together in a way that kind of is the sound of American music. But it’s a jack of all trades problem. Springsteen does a lot of things alright but nothing particularly well. His songs just always sound like generic ripoffs of somebody else or that he was hoping you wouldn’t notice he doesn’t have a strong talent for one thing or another in his music. Sure, there are sax parts or a nice organ section or something like that, but all that stuff is always in the same song and makes me think he’s covering up for something
“Bruce sings songs about the working man and nobody does it better!” Literally every other songwriter does it better. All of country music prior to Springsteen’s emergence was about the working man. There are nursery rhymes that show more knowledge of working class blues than Springsteen. Sure, Springsteen watched his father struggle to stay employed, but it’s not like he had the first-hand knowledge of that feeling. Where could he gain his insight? I just find that Springsteen’s use of the imagery and topic is more out of a feeling of needing to rather than expressing feelings of something he knew well.
Born to Run is simply the first album in a string of big hits for Springsteen. Good for him, I guess, but I don’t know why I’m supposed to be in awe of it. It represents little more to me than an ill-conceived mosaic of Americana. Loving Bruce Springsteen is much like forcing me to sing the national anthem before a football game. It feels forced; like I’m supposed to be indoctrinated
Scott: Between the Buried and Me – Colors (2007)
There’s a fair number of obvious classics I could have picked for this topic, but I felt like that would seem a bit lazy. There are plenty of classics that are frequently labeled as overrated by some music critics and listeners alike. So instead, I went with a somewhat less obvious choice from within our own scene
To be honest, I could have just done an overall summary of why I’ve never been able to get into Between the Buried and Me. I’ve tried out all of their albums at least once up until The Parallax I & II (2001/12) when I decided to just give up. On top of that, I’ve seen them live three times, including a full run-through of Parallax II, a regular headlining set a little while after and then on their most recent tour supporting Automata I & II (2018) (man, these guys really do love sequels). Suffice it to say, I’ve had a healthy sample size to work with in establishing my opinion on BTBAM. I know they’re one of Heavy Blog’s “core” bands, especially from our formative years. We even named our Anatomy Of column after them. But their brand of prog has just never clicked with me.
Which brings us to Colors. Now, depending on who you ask, this may or may not be their magnum opus, depending on their opinion of Alaska (2005) and The Great Misdirect (2009), but it’s certainly in the top three of their discography, and it’s the album I spent the most time trying to get into back in high school and college. Several of my friends over the years have been big BTBAM fans, so I felt inclined to try and “get” their sound. I specifically focused on Colors because it’s the album everyone seemed to crown as their best, at least at the time. Plus “White Walls” was also the BTBAM song among my friends—a title which seems to still hold up today.
Anyway, let’s dive in. My issue with Colors and BTBAM overall boils down to a couple of main gripes. Most prominently are the band’s compositions, which show incredible technical ability but shoddy songwriting chops. Yes, I mean that. Every time I’ve listened to a BTBAM album, and especially when I’ve seen them live, everything starts to run together into an impenetrable prog gumbo. On my repeat listens to Colors as I wrote this piece, I constantly found myself drifting out of focus as the song just smashed into one another. In my eyes, the main reason for this are the unnecessary and poorly executed genre transitions. One moment, you’ll have the band’s standard, passable prog metal and metalcore jamming, which itself is mostly just “fine.” But then, for no apparent reason, you’ll have a kitschy lounge jazz segment, some odd classical-esque guitar passage or some other random bit cut into the mix. Plus you have the constant Pink Floyd worship that just doesn’t stack up to the source material; like a jam session for Animals (1977) when the band had an off day.
As distracting and unappealing as this is, what truly puts the nail in the coffin is Thomas Giles and his less-than-stellar vocal performances. Sure, I’ll grant you that his clean vocals are fine, though his singing has never even scraped the bubble to truly great prog singers. He really sounds like he’s singing because no one else in the band could do any better. But what ultimately drags the album down to where it sits for me is his terrible croaking. I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screams are probably my least favorite of any current popular metal vocalist. He just constantly relies on the same mid-range, froggy vocals that make it seem like he either never learned how to properly scream or just doesn’t have the natural ability to do so.
I know BTBAM are a staple in the prog community, which is why I spent more time trying to “get” them than I have with virtually any other artist that comes to mind. But time and time again, I discovered the same issues over and over again. To me, BTBAM sounds like a metalcore band with incredibly talented musicians who love prog, but ultimately try to do too much and are perpetually bogged down by a subpar vocalist. Having come to this conclusion time and time again, with Colors and other albums in their back catalog, I just haven’t felt the need to give them any more of my attention over their last several albums.
Further Considerations: As I mentioned above, there are several obvious picks I could have gone with instead. But I’ll stick with my all-time top two: The Beatles and Kanye West. My parents never loved the Beatles, so I didn’t grow up adoring them like many of peers. Now, as an adult, I find their music to be obviously good and influential, but just nowhere near the status they’ve achieved. I also think Pet Sounds (1966) by The Beach Boys is better than anything they ever recorded. As for Kanye, I actually love his earlier material, but everything from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) just feels wicked-overrated in my eyes. There’s a laundry list of complaints I have about his lyrical, songwriting and album structure decisions as of late, and the way fans and critics deify him has only grown my distaste for his recent output.
Josh: Radiohead – Ok Computer (1997)
At least once a year I’ll make a concerted effort to sit down and listen to Ok Computer. I keep telling myself, “this time is going to be the one; this time I’ll finally get it.” It never is though. My first thoughts are always the same as when I hear any Radiohead song: “Is Thom Yorke really going to be doing that the whole time?” There’s something about that sort of affectedly-disinterested vocal that I just can’t abide by. As a fan of big riffs, big bounces and huge melodies, I like my musicians to sound passionate about what they’re doing and when they actively go out of the way to downplay their excitement I find it really off putting (see also: Courtney Barnett). If they can’t be bothered to be interested in the music they’re making then why should I be?
That’s probably being quite harsh on Yorke and Radiohead, who clearly have more passion and artistry in their sound than the plethora of banal indie-rock acts they inspired, nor do I particularly care for Muse, who are essentially just Radiohead with the boisterousness cranked way the hell up. Moreover, the one moment on Ok Computer where they actually sound upbeat, “Electioneering”, is by far the record’s weakest moment. I get that there are other ways to display passion and emotion rather than just screaming and yelling all the time, but there’s plenty of mellower nineties alternative acts that I enjoy who boarder on the realms of what Radiohead are doing as well. For example, I really like R.E.M., who are—admittedly—far more of a poppy rock act than Radiohead have ever claimed to be (and the fact that my favourite R.E.M. album is their much-maligned stadium rock opus Monster (1994) is probably quite revealing). Yet, I’m also far more open to the more mundane, indie-leaning output of the 1980s R.E.M. and other similar artists than I ever have been with Radiohead, while Porcupine Tree’s more mellow turn during the early 2000s might constitute a more progressive example.
Sometimes things just aren’t for you(/me) and that’s ok. Yet Ok Computer has become so ubiquitous as to be unescapable. I can’t just put this album beside and say “eh, it’s not for me” when every other month a friend of mine or an artist I like is coming out and raving about how great it is, or it’s busy topping another list of the “Greatest albums of all time”. Given it’s the sheer, baffling degree of its acclaim, I can’t help but feel that I’m the problem in this relationship, which is probably where my real gripe with this record stems from. I’m happy to concede that Ok Computer is a good record and I’m sure there’s a lot of musical nuances that I’m missing out on because I’m just not clued into those things. However, I fail to see how—given all the music that’s ever been committed to record—this is anywhere near the best example. There’s nothing here, to my ear, that The Beatles or Pink Floyd didn’t do better twenty–to-thirty years beforehand, and it sounds less like an update of those themes than a re-tread. It’s a worthy tribute, but little else.
I’m listening to the album, once again, as I write this, to give it some praise, the little, progressive fluctuations are standing out to me far more than they have in the past and “Let Down” and “Climbing Up the Walls” even jumped out at me as being an actually good songs. Yet, given that this album has now had two whole decades to grow on me—in which time I’ve come around on countless other artists I’ve dismissed in the past—I can’t see the two hundredth or so chance I give it being the one to turn me around. Results have been largely the same when exploring Radiohead’s wider catalogue. I’ve had marginally more success with Hail to the Theif (2003) and The Bends (1995), but I lose both hope and interest completely by the time we get to In Rainbows (2008) and The King of Limbs (2011), and any illusions I had about being the “cool” guy who doesn’t care for Ok Computer but totally digs Kid A (2000) were immediately shattered upon actually listening to the album. I’m sorry Radiohead. It’s not you, it’s me. (But also, maybe it’s just everyone else?)
Further Considerations: I harbour a bitter distaste toward ABBA, whose music—it has to be said—is just utterly abysmal, but my ire isn’t centred around one particular album, nor do I consider them to be a credible act to begin with. Otherwise, it’s more recent offerings that spring to mind. Despite my adoration of Pelagial (2013), The Ocean’s most recent, acclaimed outing Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (2018) is yet to leave any sort of impression on me at all (more on that to come…) and, as much as I enjoy the first few tracks of Oathbreaker’s Rheia (2016), it’s yet to hold my interest the whole way through. (I just hit “The Tourist”. Is this thing still going?)
Eden: Bathory – Bathory (1984)
It took me a long time to get into black metal. As someone who grew up in the progressive metal community, it even took me a long time to get into growls so you can imagine the sort of challenge I was facing when I started trying to parse the shrieks, low-fi production, and menacing atmosphere of black metal. Eventually though, I started “to get” what black metal was about, connecting to the themes and ideas and, through them, to the music. Even before I discovered post-black metal and atmospheric black metal, which I have an easier time with to this day, I grew to appreciate the frostbitten origins which spawned them, the original waves of black metal.
Except for Bathory. I chose their self-titled simply because it is the most classic choice and perhaps their most celebrated release; in actuality, I don’t enjoy any of the “big four” albums which made their career. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of the release. Just like Venom or any of the other early (technically maybe even “proto”) black metal bands, these releases served to bridge the gap between thrash and death metal and the nascent black metal sound. For that, I can appreciate this album. But unlike Venom, that’s where my appreciation ends.
To be honest with you, a lot of my gripe with this album is the production. It’s supposedly part of the aesthetic, bro, but it just sounds…incompetent to me. The riffs by themselves aren’t that interesting but coupled with the fuzzy production, they just blend into a mush of chords and half-executed ideas. So too the vocals; where Celtic Frost, for example, were able to bring forth impactful vocal performances from the get go, here the vocals sound weak and unable to back up the melodrama that later became the core of the black metal genre. Like the guitars, they sound botched rather than blackened, their tone more a result of ineptitude rather than a stylistic choice.
Of course, there’s still a lot on this that I can “intellectually” appreciate; I can only imagine how powerful this sound was when it was unleashed on the underground metal scene, whether it was the result of skill or not. I also don’t think you’re a fool or anything if you enjoy this release; I can see the appeal, I just can’t feel it. For me, getting past the extremely muddled production will probably never be possible and the album, as well as the rest of Bathory’s early discography, will forever remain something to be studied and understood rather than enjoyed
Bill: The Band – Music from Big Pink (1968)
So let’s start by admitting one thing: The Band and this album, particularly, inspired a litany of bands and artists to scale down the psychedelia of the 1960’s and begin to perform a more bare bones form of their music. But there’s one thing that has always greatly bothered me about The Band, their music, its progeny and particularly this album: the unbearable whiteness of it. Growing up in a household that had the requisite classics, including this album, didn’t stop me questioning just why these white dudes were mocking gospel and spirituals claimed as homage by introducing harmony choruses and lots of organ in weird places.
Noting that these guys spent time backing up Bob Dylan, another artist whose legacy I respect but do not much care for personally (sorry, Pete!), as a gateway to getting their own music heard is all well and good but the placement of this album into the firmament of one of the best ever? No, no thank you. Is it influential? Gods yes! You can’t bump into a Neil Young, Counting Crows, Jayhawks or Uncle Tupelo album without noticing the wide-ranging influence of The Band and this album on music but, to me, I’ve never been able to get past what felt like the appropriation of certain musical forms into a more palatable homogenization for a larger audience that is almost perfectly executed on Music from Big Pink.
Whether it’s “The Weight” built up on out-of-tune-yet-charming harmonies or the overwrought organ on “Chest Fever” or the straining vocals on “Tears of Rage”, this record has only ever caused one reaction in me: what did you guys do for the music and musicians you are obviously ripping off? The execution is fine. The acts it influenced? Fine… and numerous, some of whom I love dearly. But at the same time, it’s a jam record. Some dudes, and note that as well – all dudes – on this record, got together and recorded a jam session. Cool.
The Band happened to exist at this particular moment where their music could be well-received through their privilege of being connected to Dylan and that whole scene whereas many another deserving blues or soul or gospel artists of the time were buried for not having that network… or the broad appeal of their whiteness. Were The Band influenced by those same artists? I don’t doubt it. Was this album heavily influential? Oh hell yes. Will it ever be the landmark album, to me, that it is to some? No. Never.
. . .
That’s it for us, but we want to know: which classic album can’t you get into? Let us know in the comments. And if you have any questions or topics you’d like the Heavy Blog crew to cover, suggest away and we may use it in a future installment!