From reading my blog, my tastes in music should be obvious. I like Progressive Rock, Classic Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Blues, Folk, and even some experimental stuff. But my tastes tend to be rather limited. I like guitar in my songs… and not just guitar, but, at least most of the time, guitar solos. But even with those, I’m picky. I don’t like “look at how fast I can play” odes to toxic masculinity (let’s be really… straight speed is basically “look how big my dick is”). I don’t mind speed, but only as one technique in a guitarist’s arsenal of techniques. And considering that David Gilmour is one of my three number one all-time favorite guitarists, speed isn’t even the most important technique, in my opinion (though he did have it to a point, he barely ever used it).
To be fair, no guitar isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Emerson, Lake, & Palmer is another of my top 10 bands of all-time, and they only had guitar sometimes, with most of the leads being taken by Keith Emerson on keys, while the guitarist, Greg Lake, favored playing the bass guitar, instead. But even then…
Perhaps it’s because I’m a songwriter, but I don’t really listen to music as an escape. I don’t like going to clubs (too many people, too loud, not enough personal space), and I hate dancing (because I’m really, truly, honestly bad at it… I promise you… you don’t ever want to see me dance… you’ll have nightmares). So I’m not listening to music for the rhythm. I also don’t listen to music as background for something. The best time I have listening to music is, in fact, when I can gather a small group of friends, we can pour some drinks, grab some snacks, turn some music on, and sit and discuss it. I only got to do this rarely (and I haven’t done it in a long time… I miss it), but I have done it with Jimi Hendrix, ELP, Led Zeppelin, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Chantel McGregor, Anna Calvi, Living Colour, and Steven Wilson.
And this means that most of today’s mainstream music, including Pop, Rap, Hip Hop, R&B, Top 40 Rock, New-Age, etc isn’t my jam. I don’t hate them… I realize music is subjective, and I absolutely acknowledge the monster talents that can exist in these and other mainstream genres (Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are just two of many, many examples [yes, I genuinely believe that Kendrick Lamar deserved that Pulitzer for “Damn”]). But, overall, when I look for music to listen to, I look, basically, for guitar-driven Rock… whatever that may mean. In short: I’m absolutely a music snob of sorts. (I still have trouble with Metal, though… I don’t like 80’s Metal at all, and I have a lot of trouble with the harsh growls and screams of heavier, darker Metal [some Prog Metal, and most Death Metal, Doom Metal, Black Metal, etc], despite the fact that the music in these genres is often incredible.)
So you might be surprised to find that I kind of agree with Steven Wilson, here…
I feel there is a certain approach that has been lost in songwriting, mostly in Rock music.
I see this approach still seems to be around in hip-hop and R&B. I feel the Rock and pop scenes have become too conservative,
I miss these big epic records that were as experimental as anything but still very accessible with no sense of being dumbed down. We still have some acts doing this but nowhere near as much as we used to.
(Yes, the article is over a year old; it was written in support of his then-upcoming [now released and frankly very good] album “To the Bone”; I recommend it.)
He actually cites Kendrick Lamar as being one of those more innovative artists in that article.
And I have honesty noticed this, too. Right now, the Rock world is all abuzz about this new band called Greta Van Fleet. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like them, but the reason I like them is because they are trying way too hard to be Led Zeppelin, but unlike Kingdom Come (the guitarist of that band actually claimed to have “never heard of Led Zeppelin”… sure, Jan), they’re doing a decent job of it with lyrics that are reminiscent of what LZ-era Robert Plant probably would have written. So they’re extremely derivative, but not in an insulting (to me, anyways) way. And then there’s Chantel McGregor. I push her a lot because I think she’s an amazing Blues guitarist who deserves way more recognition than she gets right now worldwide… if Joe Bonamassa could sell out Royal Albert Hall, there is literally no reason for Chantel McGregor not to. But both Joe and Chantel are Blues guitarists… being derivative is literally the name of the game with the Blues (it may have been Stravinsky who said “good musicians borrow, great musicians steal”, but the Blues has become the definition of that saying). And Chantel is actually branching out further into Rock territory, now, in order to change things up.
I also think that this may be what’s wrong with Rock right now.
People are certainly trying. There’s Anna Calvi, for one, who’s Rock definitely takes very different, almost Goth or even Dark Jazz paths. And, of course, St. Vincent, who is absolutely enamored with experimentation (and I love her for it). There’s also Marnie Stern, who’s way of playing the guitar is absolutely fascinating. Of course, don’t let me forget about Kaki King, who basically popularized that percussive style of guitar playing (even if she isn’t the most famous for it… though she should be). And then there’s Steven Wilson himself, who is probably the most popular Prog guitarist of today (even if he hates the term “Prog”) and is, just like St. Vincent, very unafraid of experimenting.
But these artists almost never get played on the radio. They aren’t topping Spotify lists, and you rarely here about them on Billboard (St. Vincent being the sole exception, and even then, only when she comes out with something that has “mainstream sensibilities”). On the flipside, talented, innovative artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé do top all these charts and do get played on the radio… a lot.
And I think that, at least in part, this is because Rock lacks that same level of innovation. And part of that, I think, is that a lot of fans of Rock (those fans that would agree with my own tastes, in fact) don’t want that innovation. We all wept when Jimmy Page teamed up with Puff Daddy and Tom Morello for “Come With Me”, which sampled Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. And we wept despite the fact that, realistically, it’s got a good rhythm, it’s easy to dance to and… I mean let’s be honest, here… it’s not actually that bad (it isn’t “good”, but it’s not offensive; it’s certainly not bad enough to weep over). The mixing of Rock and Rap was a really powerful innovation for both genres, and yet while Rap fans embraced it, a lot of Rock fans (I have to include myself here, sadly)… didn’t. For one thing, the two most famous bands that emerged from the marriage of the two genres, Linkin Park and Rage Against the Machine, are often derided by the more snobbish Rock fans (I also have to admit that I don’t like either group, although I can’t really muster anything bad to say about either of them, and absolutely respect their fame), despite the fact that they don’t really deserve that derision.
Then, of course, there’s the rockers themselves. Steven Wilson describes Rock as very “conservative” now. From my view, it’s almost like we’ve pulled a “Classical” and laid down “declarations from on high” as to what Rock music is… and anything that deviates from that is… well… not Rock. So if St. Vincent puts down the guitar and does an Electronic song, suddenly she’s not “Rock”… she’s “Electronic”.
Of course there’s stuff going on in the “underground”… but that’s also part of the problem. These artists require word of mouth. You won’t find them if you aren’t looking for them. They aren’t breaking through, topping charts, and hitting the radio. They make albums, sure, but a good portion of their music is probably pirated, and most of what’s sold is sold through Bandcamp, with no showing whatsoever on Amazon.
Let’s talk about me for a bit. Though I have almost nothing recorded, yet, most of the music I’ve written is very straight-forward, easy, not-at-all innovative Rock. I do have a few instrumentals; one is a Blues guitar solo inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Scuttle Buttin’”, one is a cliché and very simple (well… maybe not for the bassist) Jazz Rock instrumental that’s basically a vehicle for every instrument in the band to have a solo (there’s two guitar solos, a bass solo, a drum solo, and a keyboard solo), another one is a “Psychedelic” piece inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” that I hope to expand into a suite that’s meant to serve as the soundtrack to an acid trip (which I still haven’t experienced), then there’s an acoustic guitar solo called DADGAD (named after the tuning) that was inspired by Jimmy Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” (though quite a bit simpler and definitely not a straight lift of any song), and finally, a straight-forward, Hard Rock arrangement of the Doctor Who theme song with an open middle section for experimenting/noodling/whatever (I’ve discovered that I really love arranging the themes for shows and movies I love for Rock and Metal… I’m attempting to do something similar with the Twilight Zone theme, but that’s proving to be a lot harder). But, for the most part, I write stuff with catchy guitar riffs, basic guitar solos, and “rockin’” beats in 4/4.
I do have one song that serves as my first attempt to write a Prog Metal song… the main part is in 19/16, the verses (there are no lyrics, yet) and the guitar solo are in 4/4, the transitions between parts are in 2/4, and, because I wanted to, the guitar solo transitions into a piano solo (in free time; the piano is playing by itself… no backing music), which then transitions into a Country/Bluegrass instrumental (in 4/4), which then abruptly changes back to the 19/16 section, then a final 4/4 verse, then the 19/16 section again to end the song (which ends, by the way, on a picardy third… and it’s not my only song written in a minor key to do that; I adore the picardy third). However, if I ever get to share it with the wider world (and I do want to, assuming good lyrics can be written for it), how absolutely cliché the entire thing is won’t be lost on anyone… cliché riffing, cliché Country/Bluegrass, cliché piano solo… just generally cliché. Not to say I don’t like it… so far, the songs I’ve largely finished and actually want to record are songs I would actually listen to on a daily basis. So calling the song “cliché” isn’t me bashing it. I love it, but I can’t pretend like it isn’t cliché.
It does seem as if Rock music (and all the genres that encompasses) has become stagnant, conservative, and unimaginative, and I seem to have fallen into that, as well. Most people can still talk about Led Zeppelin today, and as much as I love Led Zeppelin (they are my all-time favorite band), I also think that’s a bit of a problem… because no one’s really trying anything different, and when they do try something different, they’re ignored (most often), ridiculed (thankfully rarely), or shunted off into a different genre.
Plus… let’s be honest, here… as versatile as the guitar can be (and believe me… with the right effects pedals, the guitar can be versatile as hell), it can also only be so innovative, especially considering the fact that every wannabe musician and their dog can play it at least well enough to mildly entertain a group of strangers on the beach (I swear… if I hear one more wannabe play “Wonderwall” right next to the waves… stop that; it’s years past its “will get me laid” expiration date). It’s entirely possible that, in a way, the guitar’s time as the king of music is coming to an end. For me as a guitarist, that kinda sucks, but I also find that fascinating, and I genuinely wonder what instrument (or instruments) would take its place… the drums? The bass? The piano? A DJ’s turntable? A computer? An iPad? A smartphone?
I do think we Rock fans and musicians have to start really thinking about where we go from here. I genuinely believe that Steven Wilson is right, and that the only way to “save” Rock from stagnation is to innovate (even if I’m not so good at it, myself)… and maybe taking bits and pieces from other genres is at least one valid way to do that.
What do y’all think? Is Steven Wilson full of shit? Does he need to shut his mouth? Or does he have a point?