2012 has barely begun and rock fans are already at each other’s throats. One measly month is all it took for any sense of decorum to dissolve. It’s too late now; the battle lines have been drawn and the debates are raging viciously across the Internet, but what could possibly have lulled music fans out their cosy early year hibernation?
The answer is simple enough; a solitary announcement from Download Festival that represented the tipping point, unleashing a wealth of conflicting emotions that had been simmering sedately for the last twelve months.
Two weeks ago, the UK’s most historic hard rock festival, Download, which takes place at Donnington the spiritual home of metal, announced a second batch of bands. On the surface it looked like a triumph; securing the live return of a recently reformed Soundgarden, an incredibly rare second festival appearance by Tenacious D, plus the mighty Machine Head, every metal head’s favourite band, back where they belong.
As the announcements continued to roll in few took notice when drum ‘n’ bass giants Chase & Status were announced. Everyone seemed to assume they were simply a nice addition designed to add a smidgeon of variety to a guitar heavy line up, but then it happened. Soundgarden accidently leaked the event poster, and all hell broke loose, roughly in this order: Chase & Status are subheadlining! They’re playing below The Prodigy! Two dance acts in a row! They’re above Machine Head! This is a Rock Festival! No it isn’t! You’re wrong, dance has no place here!
Truth be told this dance vs. rock debate has been raging for quite some time as an array of post-dub step acts (bro-step) have slowly become the biggest names in rock and metal. Skrillex the man notoriously dubbed “The Most Hated Man In Dub Step” has led the charge with blaring noise and incessant bass drops.
The young producer quickly converted veteran innovators Korn but young genre splicers were already taking up the sound weaving challenge. Enter Shikari’s new album flew into the charts at No. 4 last month on the back of their deeply dubby lead single “Arguing With Thermometers”. It would appear hard rock’s cutting edge is pointing firmly in the direction of big meaty bass drops and full dance fusion.
The public are clearly eager for dub step infusions, and Skrillex’s debut album Voltage will be one of this year’s biggest releases, but why are guitar purists and certain hard rock fans so resistant? Is the union of guitar and beat, solo and bass drop, all that new?
Rock’s hard rock edge may have largely avoided the influence of dance culture but the same cannot be said of the indie and traditional rock ‘n’ roll. The punk revolution of 1977 changed what it meant to be in a rock band. A DIY aesthetic rose to prominence, not only could anyone be a rock star, but as punk morphed into post-punk, each and every rule and convention was systemically challenged, rearranged, and in some case thrown out all together.
The experiments were wild and pretty much every bizarre micro-genre that we know today, from industrial to abstract noise, has its origin in this tumultuous period. Unsurprisingly, these aspiring independent outfits flirted with dance music, everything else was fair game, so how could they resist? R’n’B, funk, African tribal beats, German Kruatrock, Brian Eno’s electronica, and even that most reviled of genres, disco, was co-opted, mutated and transformed into a new breed of sound.
Three bands loomed larger than most. The Talking Heads, with their maverick producer Brian Eno, destroyed the notion of a rock band. Isolating the members, recording abstract jams and lengthy passages only to break them down, chop them up, and glue them back together in the form of these warped white funk odysseys. Built on thick aquatic grooves and implausibly addictive repetition The Talking Heads’ masterpiece Remain In Light not only changed the fundamental structure of guitar rock, but it served as a forerunner for house music itself.
Joy Division and subsequently New Order blended Peter Hook’s dexterous bass lines with a series of metronomically locked in rhythms and shimmering synths to create the archetypal dance rock sound. Joy Division were darker and gloomier than New Order sticking to a more rigidly rock formula, but in the wake of Ian Curtis’ death the remaining band mates rebuilt the band’s sound. The deep groove driven core remained, but Italian disco, Latin flair, skipping electronics and deep synths were layered in to create the gorgeous summer sounds of New Order. No band before or since has so perfectly embodied the marriage of dance and rock as New Order and their seminal 1983 hit “Blue Monday”.
Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 classic 20 Jazz Funk Greats secured the relationship between guitar rock and dance by effectively inventing modern industrial music (coincidently the post-punk creation that would have the most profound effect on hard rock). It’s almost impossible to imagine Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails without the savage guitar noise and lurching monotonous grind of Throbbing Gristle.
There was no going back for traditional rock. Depeche Mode, The Human League, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Prodigy, Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party, Pendulum, Radiohead, and a million others all threw aside the constraints of guitar-bass-drums-vocals to create some of the most mind bendingly innovative music imaginable. Cultures clashed, guitar purists embraced synth lovers, and rock’n’roll has never looked back.
Metal and hard rock assimilated punk in a very different way. Rather than using the new rules of rock to blow up Black Sabbath and rebuild everything from the ground up, the new breed of metal bands co-opted punk. Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and the New Wave of British Metal took punk’s uncontrollable speed and raucous energy but retained the fundamental structures and technical intricacy of rock.
Make no mistake this was a crucial innovation that would lay the groundwork for Thrash and operatic metal, but that big all-inclusive rip it up and start again explosion never took place. Hard rock and heavy metal remained an exclusive sound. The assimilation was slow; Van Halen toyed with synths, Trent Reznor brought the industrial palette into the metal lexicon, Pantera embraced the richness of the groove, and Asian Dub Foundation experimented with dub and dancehall, but the explicit union between dance and rock never happened.
Part of the problem is doctrinal. Dance values rhythm, groove and repetition. Hard rock may use blistering rhythms and catchy riffs, but timing changes, elaborate progressions, and of course killer guitar solos stand opposed to dance’s regimental uniformity. Dub Step and Drum & Bass have changed that. The big bass drop and the relentless pace of DnB’s rhythms are far more accessible to metal than anything that house, techno, r’n’b or disco ever offered.
The time is right, hard rock fans are ready and willing, and dance has evolved sufficiently. Rock and dance can successfully combine forces, but if this is to be a cultural shift, and not a passing fad; a new credible champion must emerge. Hard Rock needs its answer to New Order and The Talking Heads; Skrillex crassly remixing some middle-aged metallers simply will not do. The veteran seal of approval is vital, but only a new band, with new ideas, and a revolutionary identity can make this revolution last.
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