Archive for December, 2011

A Video History of Metal, part 3: Power and Speed

Power metal is your stereotypical swords-and-sorcery fare. Lyrics dealt with the eternal struggle between good and evil, and album cover art evoked medieval or nordic imagery.

Cirith Ungol, Frost and Fire, 1980

You could say “speed” is best used when describing songs, not artists. Thus, speed metal becomes a subset of power metal, and is characterized by double-time beats, virtuosic guitars, and high, clean vocals. As metal progresses, we will see vocal styles grow increasingly rough; but power and speed vocalists prefer clarity over aggression. This “higher, faster, louder” approach to metal can be heard early on in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” then in the music of Judas Priest and Helloween.

Yngwie J. Malmsteen is the quintessential electric guitar virtuoso. Beginning with Ritchie Blackmore and Uli Jon Roth, there had been a trend of fusing elements of classical and metal, which Malmsteen does like no other. He even goes so far as to directly quote Bach and Paganini. Here is something from his Rising Force album:

A Video History of Metal, Part 2: NWOBHM

Several groups lurked in Black Sabbath’s shadow during the 1970’s, including Deep Purple and a very young Judas Priest; but metal had yet to coalesce into a distinct movement. Even the term “heavy metal” was merely bandied about, and often used in a pejorative sense. Early on, Sabbath drummer Bill Ward coined the term “Downer Rock” — now echoed in the use of the term “Stoner Rock” to describe groups like Electric Wizard and Queens of the Stone Age, who themselves are blatantly Sabbathesque.

Perhaps it was this lack of coherence that may have opened a weak front to the Punk invasion of the late 1970’s. With a strong following in both the UK and New York, punk was a rebellion against the decadent and indulgent, which surely included metal. Sabbath themselves were on the verge of breakup due to alcohol-fueled internal tensions.

Punk caught on so well that metal album sales sharply declined, to the point that metal music was near extinction. It took a group with crossover appeal to bridge these rough waters — a band that could maintain the macho metal attitude while co-opting punk’s thrashiness. Enter Motörhead.


Punk faded as quickly as it caught on, and by 1979 a slew of metal acts who had incorporated punk’s DIY aesthetic were prepared to pick up the momentum. Their self-produced demos found enthusiastic audiences in suburban clubs, and spread across the Atlantic to the United States. Many were signed, and the first couple of years of the 1980’s saw releases by the likes of Def Leppard, Saxon, and Iron Maiden. This phenomenon was dubbed “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” — my nomination for most awkward genre label ever — usually abbreviated as NWOBHM.

NWOBHM is near-impossible to define in purely musical terms. It’s more of a designation of a historical era. These were the groups that came up through clubs to festivals, and for some, onward to arenas and world tours. Second-tier groups like Angel Witch and Diamond Head, as influential as they were on American up-and-comers, have since faded; but Def Leppard and Iron Maiden continue to enjoy legendary status, not just among metal fans, but among all rock listeners. Sometime toward the end of the 80’s, Def Leppard exchanged street cred for pop superstardom; but Iron Maiden have never lost their respect among metal purists.

Judas Priest is said to have taken the raw elements of metal procured by Black Sabbath, and refined them by introducing a twin lead guitar arranging style, operatic vocals, and a leathery image. With this formula in hand, Iron Maiden infused sophistication. Their arrangements represented a return to progressivism, and their lyrics avoided the usual callous rebelliousness of classic metal, focusing instead on responsibility in the face of tragedy. Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” was a scathing indictment of warmongers, but Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and “Die With Your Boots On” depicted the futility of despair, and the honor of fulfilling one’s duty. Maiden even drew heady subject matter from mythology (“Flight of Icarus”), poetry (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), and history (“Alexander the Great”).

“Aces High” is a superb example of Maiden’s style. You’ll hear a double-time drum beat lifted straight from punk, supporting an intricate arrangement featuring harmonized lead guitars, soaring vocals, and harmonic modulations.

A Video History of Metal, Part 1: Origins

You would be hard-pressed to find a musical style whose origin is more poetic than that of metal. On Friday, the 13th of February, in the year 1970, the first heavy metal album was released — Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut. The opening track, also titled “Black Sabbath,” sets an ominous mood with the sounds of a rainstorm and church bells, then erupts with a confident tritone.


The tritone — the diabolus in musica — was already a marker of musical irreverence since the 1940’s bebop revolution. Jazz musicians handled the interval delicately, by superimposing “tritone substitutions” in harmonic progressions, or adding a #11 to cadential chords. But in the opening seconds of “Black Sabbath,” the originators of metal announce that they are not as concerned with subtlety or nuance. If a tritone needs to be heard, then it needs to be highlighted. This attitude defines so much of metal to come: it isolates the key elements of rock — guitar-based arrangements, angsty vocals, and a strong rhythmic drive — and amplifies them.

In this track, singer Ozzy Osbourne laments being the “chosen one” — as though intuitive of the fact that he would become a primary target for media outrage over metal’s sinister overtones, yet compelled to stay the course, for the sake of dispelling the haze of naiveté, woven by 60’s idealists, obscuring Western youth’s vision of a stark, disappointing world. In Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, Ian Christe writes:

The new Black Sabbath songs sought peace and love — not in the flower patches of Donovan and Jefferson Airplane but in the grim reality of battlefields and human ovens. Ozzy Osbourne delivered these lyrics as if in a trance, reading messages of truth written in the sky.

Metal’s sound was quite literally forged in the industrial city of Birmingham, where Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi worked in factories before devoting their full attention to their music careers. Sabbath’s classic loud, earth-pounding drones are surely an echo of the inhuman clang that was part of Birmingham’s sonic landscape. In a most serendipitous turn of events, Iommi lost the tips of two fretting hand fingers in a factory accident just a couple of years before Black Sabbath recorded their first album. To cope with the pain of playing, he would eventually detune his guitar three half-steps.

To this day, Black Sabbath’s second and third albums remain a blueprint for the creation of metal music. Their sophomore release, Paranoid, introduces the key elements of a metal arrangement — doubled bass and guitar, pessimistic lyrics, palm-muted guitar riffs, sparse textures, and agressive rhythmic grooves. The songs on Master of Reality are slower and beefier, forecasting the gloomy metal and grunge of the 90’s.

Black Sabbath were promethean. Christe describes the birth of metal more deftly than I could:

Emerging like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a contemporaneous influence, Black Sabbath was as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky, and the mortal soul. There was no precedent–and no literal explanation of their power was needed. Their gloomy tones were a captivating siren call to a deep unsatisfied void within modern consciousness. The rumbling sludge of heavy metal was inevitable, lying in long wait to be introduced by Black Sabbath in 1970 and adored by the massive human sprawl.

A Video History of Jazz, Part 12: What’s Next?

I don’t have much to offer by way of predictions. Most of the time I have given to thought about jazz has been spent reflecting on past achievements, not analyzing the current state of affairs or looking forward to the next phase.

If my attitude is typical of a modern musician, then it may contain a clue that jazz will not see another major movement. It has reached a point of equilibrium, at which its spirit of progress is counterweighted by its attachment to tradition. A musical style grows and changes during the period in which it is defined, but once it achieves an identity, it becomes self-limiting.

In conversations with friend and bassist Carl Johnson, I used to lament the fact that jazz combos cannot find decent audiences, and often have trouble even finding places to play. I blamed the listening audience. Live music of any type is dying, largely because the average club-goer doesn’t seem to value the experience of watching live performances; this is made no better by the fact that most club-goers are not likely to have any active interest in jazz. Carl challenged me with the question, “If the average person thinks jazz is self-indulgent wanking, then what are jazz musicians doing to show them otherwise?”

A few months of this back-and-forth, and I became quite convinced that jazz may be as irrelevant as we fear. We may continue listening to it and performing it, and there will still be a small audience for it, as there is for every style ever created. But its vitality is on the wane, and looks to remain so indefinitely.

Jazz isn’t the only type of music that seems to stagnate as it becomes more self-reflective. Classical music sustains itself entirely within the confines of academia. And metal, as young as it is, even seems to have reached a point where its most die-hard proponents are scratching their heads, wondering, “What now?”

Those of us who still love America’s greatest art form might as well not stress ourselves over the failure of others to share our love. We continue to enjoy new artists as they come. Currently, I’m a fan of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehldau. And some new acts even manage to give us something truly new.

The Bad Plus are a trio of piano, bass, and drums — the most fundamental combo in jazz. Their instrumentation creates sonic textures that are undeniably reminiscent of jazz throughout history, but their creative approach is something I have not seen. They are known for their reworkings of rock hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Iron Man,” and their original compositions are jerky, polyphonic head trips. Pianist Ethan Iverson has a gift for extreme right/left hand independence, and applies it in creating solos that are never mere strings of bebop passages, but explorations of texture. I can think of no better sign-off to my series on jazz than this selection from their debut album. Stop everything for a few minutes and just listen.

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A Video History of Jazz, Part 11: Downtown New York

By the 1980s, post-bop jazz had fragmented into factions representing traditionalism (exemplified by Wynton Marsalis), freedom (Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders), and fusion (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea). Concurrently, the city of New York, never a stranger to new musical directions, played host to some of the biggest figures in the hardcore punk movement. If the great artists of any era are representative of their zeitgeist, then John Zorn is one such artist.

A native New Yorker from birth, Zorn allegedly practiced ten hours per day while in college, but certainly did not focus on the bebop language. You may consider him the John Cage of jazz; in his hands, every object is an instrument, every sound a melody.

A scene sprung around Zorn and his colleagues, converging on sites like the Knitting Factory, where Zorn would host regular performances of a game piece called “Cobra.”

The music of New York’s downtown challenged the sensibilities of jazz traditionalists (one track on a CD by the Zorn-led Naked City is entitled “Jazz Snob Eat Shit”); and its influence reached the work of rock musicians, including Michael Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, and members of Soul Coughing. Patton, originally from the West Coast, would eventually collaborate with Zorn; and Mike Doughty formed Soul Coughing while working as a doorman at the Knitting Factory.

Whereas fusion sought to borrow elements of rock and soul while remaining a jazz style, Zorn’s projects betrayed a complete irreverence for tradition, treating the jazz language as only one of many tools for the creation of a pure music. His works touch all traditions while never remaining grounded in any single one.

The scope of Zorn’s catalog is vast. He has released film soundtracks (including some inspired rearrangements of Ennio Morricone), hard-bop and freeform jazz albums, classical works, experimental and “noise” albums, and even music for children. But my favorite project was Naked City, which he described as a “composition workshop.” Naked City’s self-titled debut album featured noir soundtrack pieces like “I Want to Live” and “Chinatown” alongside grindcore tracks, many clocking in at under a minute, and featuring the screams and warbles of vocalist Yamataka Eye (Michael Patton in some live performances).

Naked City’s second studio album, Grand Guignol, ditched the noir themes for arrangements of classical pieces by Debussy, Scriabin, and Messaien, but retained the noisy vignettes. The highlight of this album, “Speedfreaks,” clocks in at around one minute, and has the performers jumping musical genres with dizzying rapidity.

My one experience watching Zorn live was when his Jewish music combo, Masada, opened for the Maria Schneider big band. His quartet was so aggressively dynamic as to steal a bit of thunder from Schneider — no easy feat.

In Memoriam: Bob Brookmeyer

Bob Brookmeyer, an accomplished valve trombonist, composer, and arranger, passed away today.

He was well-known among big band musicians for his striking, progressive arrangements. Here is one:

WGW Episode 5 is Up.

Guitarists: Episode 5 of my podcast, Wired Guitar World, is now available through iTunes. This episode’s topic is the famous “Cry Me a River” lick.

Wired Guitar World

A Video History of Jazz, Part 10: Mainstream Revival

Throughout the fusion era, several diehards resisted the move away from jazz as an acoustic, bop-based idiom. The leader of the charge toward mainstream jazz’s resurrection was Wynton Marsalis. His album, Standard Time, Vol. 1, the first of a trilogy, breathed new life into decades-old material.

Marsalis is equally comfortable in orchestral and jazz settings, and his playing style reveals an immense degree of technical facility — fueling the arguments of some detractors, who would accuse him of being overly mechanical. I feel that his technical prowess only serves to bring clarity to his melodic ideas, which are highly personal and expressive.

Once Wynton had established his credibility as a world-class performer, he took on projects that more revivalist in nature: long suites celebrating jazz history and black culture, albums paying tribute to jazz masters, and the formation of the Lincoln Center jazz program. He is known to be an outspoken advocate of traditional forms of jazz, often to the detriment of his reputation among his cutting-edge peers.

Once Marsalis (and his family) burst onto the scene, the market was ripe for a new generation of traditionalists, including the so-called “Young Lions“: Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, and Terence Blanchard. The movement was accompanied by a new racial pride, manifested in the culturally focused albums of the Marsalis brothers, Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues, Terence Blanchard’s X soundtrack, and the M-Base movement spearheaded by Steve Coleman.

Thanks to old-school jazz’s new mass appeal, some artists would find their way to pop stardom. Like Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. was a New Orleans native who sought to revive a classic sound — in Connick’s case, that of a big band, fronted by a crooner. As a vocalist, Connick aped Sinatra; but he also demonstrated some facility on the piano. A steady current of pianist-vocalists have followed, including Diana Krall and Norah Jones; and the ascendant Michael Bublé seems an echo of Connick’s big-band/pop crossover efforts in the 90’s.

I find the return to mainstream jazz styles comforting in one way, unsettling in another. One one hand, jazz musicians ought to find pleasure in witnessing the continued commercial viability of their art form. But on the other hand, when the most visible proponents of jazz in the media are ideologues like Wynton Marsalis and songsters like Norah Jones and Harry Connick, I am slightly concerned that the general public isn’t getting a complete picture.

A Video History of Jazz, Part 9: Fusion

So, here we go again with Miles.

Even those oblivious to jazz history are likely to have heard of Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew, released in 1970 and featuring a large cast of players, including up-and-comers like John McLaughlin and Chick Corea. Although I believe the performances on this album tend to meander, it was highly significant. In Bitches Brew, we see the unfettered expression of free jazz, but presented in a rock and roll package.

Fusion comes in many forms. Most often, it combines the harmonic density and virtuosic improvisations of jazz with the electric instrumentation and straight-eighth beats of rock. Sometimes, the “fusion” in question is one of jazz and some music other than rock, as in the work of John McLaughlin, whose music is eastern-tinged, or of Bill Frisell, who seems to draw a good portion of material from American country and folk music.

By the mid-1970’s, John Coltrane was dead. In The Story of Jazz, Matthew Seig and Chris Albertson describe the art form as having been “seemingly in a state of arrested development” since. While I agree that no man has elevated the language of improvisation higher than Coltrane, I see Seig and Albertson’s comment as an echo of the assessment in the late 40’s that Bird and Dizzy had killed jazz with bebop. Progress doesn’t always appear the way one hopes.

Jazz purists will often speak derisively of fusion, but I don’t think anyone who recognizes good music would dismiss fusion as “not being real jazz” on the basis of its own qualities. I think fusion gets its bad reputation from the watered-down “smooth jazz” that proliferated in the 1980’s and continues to find a niche audience, with Kenny G going down in history as its poster boy. One popular quote states, “Kenny G is to jazz as Mr. T is to acting.”

As I see it, there are basically four types of fusion jazz. First, there is the type of fusion created during the 1970’s, when the style was not yet homogenized. Return to Forever, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, along with their solo spin-offs including Al DiMeola and Jaco Pastorius, were the products of post-bop veterans looking to electrify their sound. This period’s fusion retains the most credibility, mostly for being prototypical. Then you have the radio-friendly smooth jazz of Kenny G, the Rippingtons, and David Benoit, which seems to function well as chill-out music for the suburban listener who may not understand the appeal of traditional jazz, but at least enjoys the sound of a saxophone. There are a field of musicians in the continuum between smooth and serious, who manage to have found a degree of commercial success while maintaining a reputation among their peers as skilled jazz improvisors — groups like Spyro Gyra and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and artists like Grover Washington Jr. and Chuck Mangione, or hard-core boppers that for some reason chose to smooth out their approach, like Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Finally, there are the elite fusion artists — those who consistently produce music that makes profound artistic statements in both their composition and improvisations, and who freely migrate from fusion to straight-ahead jazz, and proving equally adept in both arenas.

Of the final group, the most noteworthy are the Brecker Brothers, Chick Corea and the so-called “Big Three” of electric guitar: John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell. The Chick Corea Elektric Band released a string of masterpieces in the 1980’s. I recommend Eye of the Beholder and Inside Out, the latter often delving into pretty wild territory, and proving quite adventurous for an album on the GRP label — whose catalog was dominated by smooth artists.

Pat Metheny is perhaps the most prolific figure in fusion. Others have dominated the scene during their peaks, but Pat has held a loyal audience since his emergence in the late 1970’s. His guitar style is bop-based, but sublimely lyrical. His strong connection to his fans has made him a true ambassador, not just of jazz, but of improvised music as a whole. He brings the jazz vibe to a wide audience, by fusing it with rock and world styles, and even allowing some of his midwestern background to provide a coloring of what ultimately becomes not a mere amalgam of styles, but an expression of pure music, unbound by any convention.

It is sometimes difficult to call what Metheny and others do “jazz.” It is simply good music, no matter what you call it. And at its best, that’s what fusion strives to be.

A Video History of Jazz, Part 8: Free Jazz

1959 was a pivotal year. During that single year, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps were released, each bringing something special. Brubeck’s music was both accessible and intellectually satisfying. Coltrane raised the bar for hard bop improvisation higher than ever before, even to the point of devising a new approach to harmony. And Kind of Blue would firmly establish the quintessential jazz sound for the rest of time. But a hardly-known alto saxophonist named Ornette Coleman, along with quirky trumpeter Don Cherry, hit the scene with music that was part resurrection of the Dizzy/Bird aesthetic, part revolution. Their embracing of bop tradition while inventing something altogether unheard was in keeping with the spirit of jazz; yet their innovations have stirred a controversy that lingers among jazz musicians and fans to this day. Ornette’s first album was titled, appropriately enough, The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Coleman’s quartet did not feature a chord instrument like piano or guitar. Their emphasis was entirely on melody. This is “time, no changes”: an approach to improvisation in which there is no prescribed chord progression, but there is still a rhythmic pulse. This approach was later adopted by Miles’s second quintet, in E.S.P. and later albums.

Once Coleman opened the door, total freedom was not far behind. In 1960, Coleman released Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, an epic work which stretched the concept of time to its breaking point. By the time John Coltrane released his epic freeform work, Ascension, in 1966, all rules were optional.

Lest you assume this music is an expression of pure anarchy, in both Free Jazz and Ascension there is structure. Even the most randomized musical events benefit from a blueprint, however skeletal. Rough cues guided the process of collective composition through a series of texture changes and dynamic variation.

One unfortunate misconception about free jazz, held mostly by those who claim to have no taste for it, is that it is cacophonous. But such a claim is like saying liquor is extremely difficult to swallow. Not all liquor is served as a double-shot of 100-proof whiskey, and not all free jazz is an unbridled outpouring of noise. There is a continuum of freedom in jazz. The clusters of noise heard in pieces like Ascension, and in later efforts by downtown New York figures like John Zorn, are on the freer end of the spectrum. But there is a lot of music hanging out near the other end. John Scofield, for example, has a way of playing “time, no changes” that fools you into thinking you’re hearing straight-up fusion:

Another misconception is that anyone can play convincingly in this style. This is tougher than it sounds. When you have no chord progression to guide you, what do you dare to play? Even purely random notes can be surprisingly difficult to assemble on the fly. The free jazz artist must be expertly familiar with the implications of tonal melody, enough to flirt with tonality when the moment requires, and drift away into abstraction while maintaining a sense of melodic intention.

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