Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Style, substance and the relationship therin

Since Pavel and Noktorn have expounded upon the philosophical ideas and ethos behind this blog, I felt like talking a bit of time to ruminate about a subject that often rears its head amongst the more intellectually-involved circles of the metal scene. The people who know what they like, but yet aren't satisfied with merely being satisfied. The people who feel the calling towards pondering the components of what they enjoy, in an effort to substantiate their reasons for classifying music and grouping it. Style and substance are two words that lie close to one another in the metal scene; nearly becoming sister terms in the conjectures of the analytical and often deft minds that come to question what each term means. It's a simple notion that has often elicited many thoughts of my own, about the relationship of art vs. entertainment, appearance vs. character and other similar concepts in structured music. For me, the style and substance issue is one that often intertwines the two terms logistically - almost like they lie together in a binary-like fashion. I'll expatiate what all this means to me, as I feel that it's an important analytical element as an appreciator of art, but music specifically. I believe it may point to answers I seek, such as, "Why do certain albums sound good, yet lack replay value?" "What must be in place for true mediocrity to ensue?" And, "What separates good from great?" I feel like getting at this a little bit...

Style: Style is at once used both under a more and a less precise connotation than 'substance.' Style often denotes a grouping or categorization of something. In music, style has come to represent not just this, but an essence of comparison amongst artists. Style is often a selling point; often being the first big piece of perfunctory information that is used to firstly investigate and than assess a given artist. 'Style' is always something itself, before the artist themselves becomes something. More bands than not often to strive for a style as a means of identity. This is by all means a common first step in the writing of music, but in metal, it becomes a bit more of a tricky animal. It's in this manner, that it's nearly as if more bands are reaching outwards for ideas and inspiration than inward. The mental association of worthiness as being attained by certain means; manipulating traits of a genre or style for ideas, substance, inspiration. This is a very integral process in the formation of mediocrity, and relates a lot to what Nok expressed in his post about mediocrity vs. failure. It's the realization that so much in metal has been done and transcribed, that the challenge of its construction has been lost and in turn, writing a metal album has more in common with a how-to-do manual than a truly arcane exploration of rhythms, distortion, production and composition. As metal remains stringently codified by a distinct and unique set of principles (though that paradigm shifts regularly and always has) there is a very concrete grasp on the general spirit of its various spawns; where each sub genre has a place in the spectrum. Where anymore, a sub genre isn't as much of a genre itself as it is a mere label.

This is preserved by the fact that so much variety exists within the shell of a given sub genre, that that style has almost lost its original meaning and like I said, grown into more of a label than a real term. "Death metal" is at a point where it merely describes abrasive music with a fixation on the generally negative and arcane. It describes an idea, and while that has always been true, it now describes less because its meaning has become so broad. Of course, to the seasoned listener, this isn't as much of the case, but on a general scale, it describes how any term remains as a label that seems to just label, rather than really point to what goes beyond the label - the 'style', and composes the substance within the music.When artists aim for a particular style, it seems to reflect a condition where a personal musical identity hasn't been created or even set out to be discovered - but rather merely assembled by means of manipulating the ideas and work of others. Style is at once what often both gives inspiration and ideas to groups, yet vanquishes their delicate, own character. It's the cognitive outsourcing of ideas, more often than not. After all that, it may sound as if style itself isn't a good thing. It is and isn't. It's a yes/no answer with a less direct response.

There's a bit of a flip-side to what I just stated. They've said that "Nothing's original - all things are derived and molded from various sources." This is a yes and no answer. Everything can be seen as a slight or subtle successor to all else before, especially in a genre like metal - where a generally myopic compositional attitude often finds itself lurking within the minds of many underground metal musicians. As a phenomenon that produces dozens of musicians with nearly identical ideas, it's the striving for a particular style that may be what adds the nuances and subtleties of character to an otherwise generic sound. One band may rearrange what made another so good until it's just different enough to pass off as 'different'. It's a common case. Other bands may travel far outside the box in an effort to garner a 'progressive' or 'post' prefix. At either end, it's a sort of musical idolatry that often causes a band to strive for something they initially perceive as 'beyond their sound'. This may make a band or break a band, which is why this is such a fascinating issue. If it makes the band, it's often because the band were close enough to greatness on their own merits, and were lucky enough to stumble upon extra substance to carry their sound that much further. If it breaks the band, it's usually because the band strove so hard to create what said band values in their favorite music, that it has blinded them from their own vision - and the impulsive, almost thoughtless way of allowing the music to come naturally from within.

Substance: Initially, it almost makes sense to say that substance is birthed and then even dictated by style. There's a bit of interchangeability between the two, though they still mean two very different things. However, I also feel that substance is synonymous with the very notion of looking inward rather than outward for ideas and inspiration - and therefore can also be the fundamental foundation upon which a style can emerge. Of course, when any major or sub style is brand new or hasn't evolved too far into a label from its origins. 'Substance' doesn't refer to a general idea or sound like 'style' does. It's the term that both means much more, yet is more difficult to articulate given how nebulous of an concept it represents. Substance is at once both style and not style. It's style in that what it is may resemble certain genre traits, but it's not, in that what it means within a given band is something that cannot be pinned down or given a formula. That's because said band in question has eschewed the convenience of emulation, and rather strove for a more insular and unguided path of writing. Style becomes the key to a formula, where substance is the keyhole. A concept understood, yet given no concrete definition or parameters - the route in which to channel a more unhinged and natural way of expressing musical ideas - untainted by ideals or goals. The condition which allows for music to flourish and be written naturally - free of contrived influences.

Of course, even if a band is completely original and seems to overflow with substance over style, it doesn't necessarily ensure greatness. Music isn't so simple, especially metal music. The conflicting trouble of metal continues to be the relationship between the integrity to stay within boundaries, yet nursing the secret to setting oneself apart. The distinction between style and substance isn't meant to provide a useful philosophy on how to be more original or worthy. It merely tries to touch upon different sources of inspiration and song-craft, and offer an understanding of how they can lead to different sounds within a genre. Nonetheless, the two terms do mean a lot on their own merits, and can offer some (not very deep, yet somewhat satisfying) answers.

After all that, you might or might not understand what I'm getting at. But to illustrate it simply before I conclude here, I'll put it like this: Style is, "We should sound like _____________ - they're badass!" Substance is, "Who cares what we sound like, as long as we like the result." And in an overcrowded metal underground where distinction grows more elusive than ever, it should be obvious as to which term is more important to the preservation of quality, and artists who matter because they truly offer something. And while it may read like I'm trying to unveil a codex to all this, it's still a matter mostly submerged in the mysteries of subjectivity. But with this, at least I'm trying to find a starting point to rationalize from.