Rock Isn’t Innovative Anymore

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?


  1. Chris DeVries says

    Okay, I’ll try this again. Sorry if there are a bunch of re-posts here Nathan. Thanks for getting it fixed.


    No, I think you and Wilson are both right. Even prog rock (and metal) has become largely derivative, bands copying the sounds and styles of other prog bands rather than taking the word “progressive” to heart and actually being mildly innovative. Other bands (Dream Theater is a great example) are derivative because they’re trying to riff on THEIR OWN successful work instead of continuing to push the envelope. Some of this, by new artists at least, can be excused by the necessity to learn the ways of the past so that you can move beyond them; it’s just that so few bands ever DO move beyond.

    I don’t know if rock is dead, or if the guitar is no longer king. I suspect yes to the former and no to the latter though. Rock was a product of its time, and all of the extensions of the genre, from Fleetwood Mac to AC/DC share certain qualities in common. That which they DO NOT share in common is what makes the music interesting, and it is true that there exists a large stylistic diversity within the body of rock music. But apart from new *playing styles* being popularized that shake up the genre, I think rock cannot be innovative anymore. The only thing one can do to reliably push rock music forward is to defy the very conventions that are found in virtually all forms of rock, and then, would it be rock ‘n roll anymore?

    Metal, on the other hand, has seen something of a resurgence in the last decade or so, and from the new ways of playing metal I’ve seen come into being, I don’t think the panoply of possibilities in metal has come even close to being exhausted. Metal can encompass much more sonic space than rock ever did because there are fewer restrictions on what can be metal.

    It’s funny you mentioned Kendrick Lamar. I also have found it incredibly difficult to get into Rap, Hip Hop and R+B, but when I first heard Lamar (on Colbert), I was blown away. It was like…rap mixed with jazz and a hint of prog…something I’d never heard before, and I was immediately taken with it. He is an extremely talented songwriter, and To Pimp a Butterfly was as good, in my opinion, as a classic Zeppelin or Pink Floyd album. It was, at the time, unique. I know that they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but the reality is a little more subtle -- you can still write music that SOUNDS new because it combines influences in a way that is unfamiliar. The best artists are the ones who make the old sound new, the ones who don’t play to your expectations of what music should be. It doesn’t matter that there is technically nothing new; people’s perception of newness, of unfamiliarity, is all that matters. I am not sure that the expectations of rock music listeners can be subverted in a way that keeps the music rock, but makes it sound new, because I agree that there is a conservatism that has made rock stale. Metal fans tend to be more open to new sounds and experiences, so a lot more styles can fit under the umbrella of metal. In my opinion.

    On an unrelated note, you mentioned arranging theme songs for various shows as rock or metal -- have you seen Leo Moracchioli’s work? He is a Norwegian music producer who spends his free time in his studio, covering all sorts of pop music as metal songs, and puts the resulting videos on youtube. I strongly recommend his version of Toto’s Africa, as well as Dire Strait’s Sultans of Swing (just search his name on youtube with the song names). He even did Hanson -- MMMBop…I think that’s the only time I felt that maybe he didn’t completely sell me on the metal-ability of a song. Most of the time though, from Gagnam Style to Despacito to Bittersweet Symphony, the songs sound pretty amazing as metal.

  2. says

    Glad you managed to get your comment posted here, Chris!

    I don’t really listen to Electronic/House/Dub-Step/Dance, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities of using the principles as instruments/writing principles in rock music (writing a rock song where the guitar solo is played over a Dub-Step break, for example). I use Guitar Pro to write music, and I’ve requested that they include the ability to “write out” the sounds associated with such (being fully aware that most of it is written with a computer to begin with), but the only response I ever get from other users is “you want to write pointless noise in GP?” while my request gets down-voted into oblivion likely long before any of the developers of the program even see it… which… really… sort of proves the point, honestly…

    Muse has actually taken that route a few times, and listening to Muse (I can tolerate the lyrics okay… usually… but the music is amazing) is actually how I became fascinated with the idea…

  3. phil says

    Yes, I think he has a point. The rock genre overall seems to be stagnating. Sadly, I don’t think that Wilson can or wants to do something about it. I love his music, Porucpine Tree, Blackfield, his solo stuff, but I think he is stagnating quite a bit in the last few years. He was experimenting with jazz influences on “The raven that refused to sing”, and although the rock/jazz-fusion was already done a long time ago by the likes of King Crimson, at least it was a new approach for him. And I think rock/jazz-fusion is a subgenre that is still not fully explored (see David Bowie’s fantastic “Blackstar”-record, which was influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s “To pimp a butterfly”). But Wilson didn’t explore this enough I think. And the jazz influences are missing on his newer albums. I really like “To the bone”, saw him perform most of the album just two weeks ago. But nothing on this album is new, everything was already done by himself with PT, BF or on his solo records. I am sure he could innovate. He just has to bring some of his drone/ambient stuff he records as Bass Communion to his solo records, that would be a start. But right now he seems to be ok with being the aging rock/pop star that rants about the youth not knowing what a guitar is (he did so at the concert two weeks ago -- not my favorit moment of the night).

    As for innovation in general, I think that surprisingly lots of innovation can be found in metal these days, especially in the more extreme subgenres. Surprisingly, because metal can be a very very conservative genre itself. But there a bands like Batushka, who mix Black Metal with Russion Orthodox chanting; Deafheaven, who play kind of joyful Black Metal (although I don’t really like the result); Negura Bunget, who mix Black Metal with Romanian folk music; the crazy Japanese band Sigh, who mix Metal with basically everything they want to; Orphaned Land, who mix Progressive Metal with traditional Israeli and Arabian music; or Animals as Leaders, who do great stuff within the djent-subgenre.

    And for innovation in Prog Rock I would point to the phenomenal Bent Knee, who play really refreshing Prog and have a female singer and bass player, which is sadly still exotic for the genre. And there is Anna von Hausswolff, who plays Post Rock with a heavy dosage of drone, using pipe organs among other instruments. And The Mars Volta’s first albums were released over ten years ago already, but they still hold up as innovative Prog records. You have to dig a bit, but there are still fresh things to find in rock music I think.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    (4th try, after a plaint to “Tech Issues”)

    You might find some bittersweet consolation in John Shirley’s “A Song Called Youth” trilogy (Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, Eclipse Corona), in which the last rock’n’roller stages a final hardcore guitar solo in defiance of a fascist takeover of post-Armageddon Europe.

    Or not…

  5. says

    phil @ #4…

    I don’t know… I really like Steven Wilson, and I rather enjoy To The Bone. It doesn’t seem too similar to his previous stuff to me, either, because it’s much more Pop than his past output (even No Man).

    As for the rest… I agree entirely about Metal. It’s mainly just the harsher growls and such in the vocals that I have trouble with for a lot of Metal genres, and so I tend to seek out either instrumentals or Metal that doesn’t feature too much of those kinds of vocals. Although I am constantly trying to get myself used to the vocals so I can actually enjoy Metal more. But… um… it isn’t easy… heh…

    Though I do love Animals As Leaders quite a bit. I will certainly check out the rest.

    You’re point about women still being “exotic” for Prog… I’m still waiting for an all-woman band that takes its cues from groups like Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree and such. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m still waiting for an all-woman Pink Floyd tribute band (ala Lez Zeppelin, Zepparella, The Iron Maidens, etc).


    Pierce R. Butler @ #5…

    (Yeah sorry about that. I let PZ know and, hopefully, he fixed it. But we’ll see going forward.)

    I will absolutely check those books out. Thanks.

  6. cherbear says

    If you want to here some of the less played stuff, CBC radio 2 has some interesting shows that play a variety of music. you may find that there is a lot to listen to there.

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