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Music Monday: Not Sucking edition 
1st-Oct-2012 12:59 pm
sunglasses, south-park
So, back when I was a teenager, something that was very important to my music appreciation was the concept of the Album of Imminent Suck. Basically, if a band released an Album of Imminent Suck, which was was itself usually not a bad album, then one of two things would happen: either the band would break up or everything they released thereafter would Suck.

Each new album release by a favorite band was therefore an occasion for some anxiety, as it had to be scrutinized for the varied and subtle signs of imminent suckage. I can remember the rush of relief I felt on hearing Soundgarden's Superunknown for the first time and feeling absolutely certain that it was not their Album of Imminent Suck, and the equally crushed when I heard Down on the Upside, because despite containing some of Soundgarden's best tunes, it was the clearest example of an Album of Imminent Suck I'd heard in some time. The band proved me right by breaking up not long thereafter.

Of course, now I've reached the age at which dearly beloved bands of my youth that succumbed to Suck decades ago are now reuniting. And I find myself cautiously excited. Is it possible that my 18-year-old self did not know everything about the creative lifecycle of bands, and there might be a path back from the pit of Suck?

Soundgarden have released "Been Away Too Long", the first single from their upcoming new album, and on the basis of one listen, I'm prepared to say it doesn't suck. I wouldn't quite call it a home run - the lyrics are a little self-referential for my taste, and it doesn't have the sheer grandeur of my favorite Soundgarden tracks. But it's got a nice chuggy little guitar riff, somewhat reminiscent of "My Wave" from Superunknown.

You can listen on Soundcloud: http://soundcloud.com/soundgarden/been-away-too-long. (They've disabled embedding, alas.)

Of course, there are also bands that just defy the simple pattern of the Album of Imminent Suck altogether. My Dying Bride have seemed like they were going off the rails a number of times during their 20+ year career, but always seem to find their way back to equilibrium. They have an album coming out in a couple of weeks, and have released a preview track called "Kneel 'Till Doomsday".

It doesn't suck either, although I have an unreasonable fondness for violin played over downtuned guitars (a combination that, as far as I know, is unique to My Dying Bride), so I'm predisposed to like it:

2nd-Oct-2012 06:01 am (UTC)
But what are the varied and subtle signs of imminent suckage?
2nd-Oct-2012 06:30 pm (UTC)
To an extent, it's an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. As far as I've been able to articulate it, it's mostly a set of indications that the initial creative/artistic impulses that animated the band are waning, and not being replaced or refreshed by something else. Depending on exactly where on the band's trajectory of decline the album was recorded, the signs can be subtle or actually fairly glaring. Some things I used to look for:
1. The most difficult to determine objectively, but probably the most indicative, is an album where a large proportion of the songs feel "by-the-numbers". Objectively, the band is doing what they've always done, but the sense of excitement or energy that characterized previous efforts is missing.

2. A distinct shift in musical style, especially if it is indicative of casting about for inspiration (like metal bands that decide to 'go back to their roots' and record random blues covers) or a markedly more commercial-friendly direction. (Bands that have risen rapidly in their commercial profile seem particularly prone to producing an Album of Imminent Suck, and said albums are often ironically commercial breakouts for them. I would guess that pressure from record companies to be more radio friendly often contributes to the creative decline.)

3. Stylistic incoherence - particularly evident in bands where there are multiple songwriters. If you can suddenly really obviously tell who wrote which tracks, and everyone seems to be pushing in different directions, that can indicate trouble. (This was a big factor in Soundgarden's Down on the Upside - Chris Cornell was doing this soulful singer-songwriter thing, Ben Shepherd was doing weird avant-garde stuff, and the other two still thought they were in a rock-n-roll band.)

4. Double albums seem statistically more likely to be Albums of Imminent Suck, especially if the only reason to release a double-album seems to be because the band doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between their good material and bad material anymore.

Looking at it written out like this, it really (except for #1) looks like a list of indications that a band is trying to evolve creatively. If it points to anything, it might really just point to the fact that significant creative evolution is difficult for most bands both personally and commercially.

Also, it occurs to me that by the above metrics, one would have been worried about the Beatles at least as early as Revolver, and The White Album ought to have been an indication that they were toast. (I suppose you could make an argument on that last point. Still, if Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road are your "sucky" albums, your sucking is better than most bands' rocking.)

Edited at 2012-10-02 06:32 pm (UTC)
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