The term gothic is commonly associated with surface trappings in popular perception but what it really signifies is a setting, and, more esoterically, a mood and the expression it finds. What we call ineffable is the gothic; that which falls outside the purview of empirical models but is only too real for its subject is the gothic. For it can’t be denied that emotions, though they may have their source of origin in the external world, come from a space that is truly internalized and as such intensely personal. Gothic art, which feels like and for intents is an offshoot of romantic art, amplifies these emotions unflinchingly in a way that is considered gauche or maudlin by more classical standards. But by deigning to step down from an impossibly perfected ideal to the level of personal experience, it reminds us not only of the frailties of the human condition but also of the joys in smaller triumphs.
Artists, then, naturally find different ways of expressing themselves in this scope. It would be churlish to endorse certain emotions and denounce others for the whole of human existence is a manifaceted spectrum with one color bleeding into another and with no solid demarcation. A certain section of metal – in fact the largest part of it – subscribes to this raw and vulnerable revealing of being. This unfiltered honesty is one of the reasons that draws many to this style of music and then retains its hold over them, because “getting” heavy metal is tantamount to knowing oneself, and what greater or nobler objective can any piece of art purport to achieve?
From a personal perspective, melodicity has always been the first thing that I have looked for in a piece of music. There seems no shame in admitting to such a predilection; to quote from a previous post on these pages:
Marty Friedman, in his excellent guitar tutorial Melodic Control where he illustrates following chord progressions accurately and soloing over them with corresponding arpeggios instead of staying in one key throughout as is the studied norm, talks about the importance of choosing the right notes at the right time, and how this aids in the creation of meaningful melody. To paraphrase him, “..music is all about making melody. Doesn’t matter if you’re playing distorted or playing quietly by yourself in the corner. All you’re trying to do, always, is make music”.
A work of heavy metal, however, operates within specific contexts, chief among which is adherence to a certain flow and a natural ascent. As beautiful as an individual pearl of melody may be, it is rendered futile if it doesn’t operate with this framework. Pilloried for the effete nature of their music, Opeth‘s work in the early part of their career, a phase when most bands create with a relatively uncluttered, uncommercial mindset, routinely runs foul of these aspects.
What is that we mean by progression or story-telling? If one imagines a scale of wholes from 1-10, then it stands to reason that a well-written piece of music, or even literature for that matter, traverses this span with a degree of consistent “polling”. Polling, in this sense, means that there cannot be a transition from 1 to 5 without touching base at 3, 4, and 5. The good bands do precisely this, but the great ones devolve things to an even finer, more granular level. These latter delve into the fractional increments between wholes; as a result, in their case, the journey from 1 to 5 not only touches 3, 4, and 5, but also pays painstaking attention to the 1.3s and the 3.76s and so on. The point here being that great bands care innately, and intuitively, about microscopic gradients in emotion.
Opeth, on Orchid, don’t. There isn’t anything egregiously bad as such about these songs, built as they are on a tepid, unoffensive base of cliched, melodic Euro-death from the 90s and other strange asides. The thing that has always struck me as being a little odd about bands like Opeth is this: how does one go from feeling a torrent of raging emotion to a seemingly platonic lack of it in a matter of moments? How does beauty renounce its charms and transmogrify into a visage of death for no apparent reason?
No doubt there are pathologically bipolar personalities at large in the world that speak on behalf of such things, but I’m not sure whether Opeth would consider being called bipolar a compliment. Yet that is how it is; Opeth‘s idea of progression is endless repetition of riffs of middling quality at best and moments of pitiful sensitivity, but sometimes also of genuine beauty, suddenly and forcefully interjected into songs like the rape of all that signifies good taste. There are few decimals to Opeth‘s music, which is a damned shame for a band that calls itself progressive death metal.
Opeth‘s music is obviously played well by technicians of redoubtable talent, but ones that seem like glaring misfits within their chosen paradigm.
Turn Loose The Swans, on the other hand, aims at evoking the same emotional grandeur, and succeeds spectacularly, by being an altogether more composite, even-natured album than Orchid. My Dying Bride, it is obvious from hearing this timeless classic, were aware of being a metal band first and foremost; even the exotic and doleful use of the violin is adjusted for expediency and impact, as should be for a metal band. There are transitions between aggression and contemplation here, no doubt, but the band’s vision is cut from the same core fabric; as per the coarse analogy above, My Dying Bride knew much and more about the decimals between the wholes and the result is an album with no jarring qualities to speak of. Yes, it is dramatic. Yes, it is overly sentimental. But at no point does the band have to tell the listener, “Ok listener, we are feeling sad now. Hear this bit and feel sad along with us!“. My Dying Bride set up their musical world on their own terms and preempted the listener to follow in their tracks. That is their real and lasting achievement.