“I think we need a revelation, not a revolution.” So ends the sound bite at the end of “Revelation, not Revolution,” the sixth track off of Feed the Rhino’s new album “The Sorrow and the Sound.” The quote comes from an interview with Deborah Tavares, a conspiracy theorist with the obligatory Illuminati boner, about a “leaked” NASA document (and by leaked, they mean found on a public NASA website), although the connections between what she says in the interview and the document are tenuous at best.
The quote was still a powerful one for me, though. When those words rang in my ears midway through the album, my brain didn’t register a schizophrenic rant. To me, it was a powerful statement about what’s going on in music in general and about what Feed the Rhino and other similar bands are doing right now.
Before I get into what I mean by this, let me get one thing out of the way first: “The Sorrow and the Sound“ is great. Vocals that shift between melodic and hardcore punk set to music that has a few similar stylistic elements but tends more towards Thrash with a bit of a NWAHM vibe, although that’s a very inappropriate term for a British band, and it’s all tied together with an obvious sense of inspiration, of passion for what they’re doing. Go listen to these guys and give them some green if you can. If that’s all you want to know, you can avoid the rest of this article.
Now, if you’re still with me, let’s talk about that revelation. Unlike the political situation described in the sound clip, we in the music community don’t have to worry about someone declaring martial law in response to one of our revolutions. Nevertheless, our revolution seems to have died. Our favorite new bands aren’t radical departures from the past. They don’t break ground the way Zeppelin, Sabbath, Hendrix and Tangerine Dream did. We’re no longer being shocked by the likes of Metallica, Pixies, The Sex Pistols and Grandmaster Flash. We aren’t even seeing radical transformations of existing genres ala Tool, Massive Attack, Alice in Chains and Dr. Dre. This isn’t because our musicians today are lacking in some way — they are as inspired and relevant as they’ve ever been. And don’t go the way of the condescending hipster and blame it on the audience; it’s not their “fault” either.
All of these revolutions happened because we had two things going on at the same time in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
First, shifts in technology were changing the way we created and listened to music. Recording technology shifted the focus from composition to performance and gave us the ability to use and manipulate existing recordings as part of further works. The injection of electrical power into sound allowed new instruments along with creative ways of altering and distorting sound after it left the instrument. Rapid increases in computing power allowed us to sample and loop in complex layers, to emulate instruments and create new sounds on the fly that existed only in virtual worlds of our own creation. And second, a series of cultural collisions were bringing together all sorts of different views on basic music theory and technique, creating wonderful new spaces for fusion and innovation.
This was wonderful, but it created the illusion that there was a war in music between the old and the new. And now, as the wave of disruption migrates from how we create and listen to music to how we distribute and discover it, it feels like things have stopped, like the war has been lost. But here’s the thing: as wonderful as all those revolutions were, that’s never really what the war was about. It’s still raging. It hasn’t been lost, because it was never really about finding the future and demonizing the past.
It was never about “the next big thing” triumphing over “the last big thing” or even about our endless arguments over what the next big thing should sound like. It was never about rock vs. disco or punk vs. metal or rap vs… whatever. The real war is one of the oldest in “modern” popular music: between those who are driven to create music because they’re inspired to do so, because they have discovered their muse and wish to share it with the world, and those who are trying to control music, who see it as a product, commodity that can be traded for something they desire, whether that be currency of a physical or of a cultural natrue. It’s the American hit factory fighting back against the British invasion, not because it was different (some of these producers were very musically savvy and quickly “got it”), but because they didn’t control it.
It’s the musical literati of 1970s Rolling Stone tearing apart Zeppelin because they didn’t sound like Simon and Garfunkel. It’s every independent movement from punk to grunge to indie and its subsequent co-opting and codification. It’s not the studio vs. the independent artist, though, because independent artists can make stale, comfortably genre-fied music and very inspired work can be done by signed acts. And this all looked like it was a fight between the old and new music, because the cutting edge was found first by the true artists and then later packaged into a product by the controllers.
Unfortunately, now that we can see what the fight is really about, it’s much harder to know whether we’re on the right side of it. We can longer judge the quality of a band by listening to see if it drops from the lips of the people who wear the right clothes. We have to learn to really listen, both to the music and our own hearts. We have to learn to tell the difference between music that challenges and music that panders, between musicians that are obeying their muse and musicians that are obeying a formula, between the flame of inspiration and snuffing power of fashion.
There’s a new crop of musicians across the spectrum of rock and metal that are burning with that flame of inspiration. I want to tell you that Feed the Rhino is one of them, but I’d much rather you come to your own conclusions about who they are. To find them, though, you’ll have to throw down the walls of your genre fortresses, get rid of your checklist of preferences, and listen with fresh ears. They may not bring a revolution, though. We may have to wait for the equivalent of another industrial or information revolution before that happens. But while inspiration may not always deliver revolution, it does always deliver revelation.
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