Op Ed: Genre Hopping and Jumping the Shark
My friends, I’ve got some beef with you. Over the course of these four or so months, I’ve grown very fond of this warm little toilet and its delightful denizens. I feel at home here amid the scum and the filth. But lately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend rearing its ugly head from deep in the bowels of the toilet, clogging up the joint and emanating an unpleasant odor. Comrades, indulge me for a minute while we talk about the pointlessly prevalent accusation of genre hopping.
Before I dive into my thoughts on that topic, though, I need to clear the air about how I feel about metal genres. I’ve seen a lot of bands lately whine and moan about being pigeon-holed into a particular genre even though that is precisely the style they play. “We don’t play black metal, we play transcendent butt-gaze” or whatever. Here’s the thing. Metal genres and subgenres exist for a reason. They allow us to sort and classify the multitude of bands that are clamoring away on basement demos over at bandcamp. They give us a handle for choosing between the glut of new projects (half of which are typically from Mories or Justin Broadrick) and determining how we should squander those precious few dollars and hours that we’ve squirreled away rather than spending them on healthy foods or exercise, respectively. Metal genres have typically been defined both by innovative bands labeling themselves or by journalists establishing the term to describe a groundbreaking scene. Essentially, these brackets have been laid in place by the experts, and we as humble listeners must respect those foundations because they give each of us a communicable language with which we can discuss our interests. Additionally, genre tags provide us with an expected product. We don’t call Metallica death metal because we know not to expect tremolo picking, growls, or blast beats. Similarly, we want to know which sounds to avoid; we don’t call Cattle Decapitation tech death because we don’t want people to be turned away by thinking they play weedly deedlies like Rings of Saturn. Plus, every single one of us here has suffered the indignation of being accused of listening to screamo. Let’s all just agree that genre labels are important and that we should use them wisely and appropriately. Therefore, if you’re in a band and don’t want to get pegged in one subgenre, incorporate elements from a different one rather than coming up with some absurd moniker for your style of music that plenty of other people in your subgenre are playing.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about this insult I’ve seen a number of you (and other bloggers/readers) bandy about. Many of you are quick to slander any band that shifts between genres and releases an album in a decidedly different style than previous efforts. This honestly baffles me because we as metalheads often profess that we love “progressive” music or that we enjoy when bands “stylistically evolve.” So I’m confused about something. Is the progress only supposed to be made within a particular genre that we enjoy? If a band we love dabbles in some other genre, are we too narrow-minded to appreciate it? Or is the problem more of an issue with control? Are we afraid to let the musicians we idolize, on whom we place an unrealistic amount of expectation and longing for fulfillment, construct art that they think is meaningful? Perhaps, and I think that’s the reason why you’ll often find the same fans who lob accusations of genre hopping also whine that their favorite bands are suddenly releasing a new album. Some of us have grown far too accustomed to the categorization system laid by our forebears, and rather than using genres as a constructive language tool, we use them as a fetter to bind the artists we adore to our own strict guidelines.
As you can hopefully see, there’s a cognitive dissonance here. We can’t claim to be open-minded while simultaneously eschewing the experimentation and boldness that helped define this genre we all love. We can critique a band as they work within the boundaries of a particular subgenre, but we have to add some more descriptive handles to our criticism if they choose to straddle the lines. Honestly, I think more bands should play with the boundaries and not allow themselves to stagnate while working within one predefined set of rules. Think of your favorite band this year. Do they stick to the template of their home subgenre? I assume not, and thus, musical progress is forged.
Let’s examine some common targets of genre hopping. I’m going to provide several exhibits and explain why the accusation is both lazy and disingenuous. The most consistent target for this insult is Machine Head, and honestly, I think that’s a bit silly. The band has really only ever played two styles: groove/thrash and nu metal. I find it humorous that people accuse them of genre hopping when there are other bands who have changed styles more frequently and less effectively (looking at you, Trivium). But when you get down to the core of the attacks on Machine Head, I think what you find is that people dislike the fact that they’ve changed genres when each scene was burgeoning, and thus appeared to be trying to cash in on popular trends. I honestly think that’s a much more legitimate criticism, but I’d still prefere the band that wrote “Wolves” rather than the band that wrote “From This Day.”
Another band I’ve seen accused of being genre hoppers is Job for a Cowboy. I’ve never been a huge fan, but I do think they’re a perfectly inoffensive death metal act. Unfortunately for them, they’ve been forced to eternally feel the backlash of writing one deathcore album. What’s strangest about this, though, is that it almost seems that people resent them now for playing a more credible style, as though the fact that they started off playing deathcore somehow ruins their legitimacy and permanently grounds them in the Myspace scene despite any musical progression they may have made. This is absurd. Like them or hate them, they should be judged on the trajectory of their career rather than their origins.
The last band I often see maligned as genre hoppers is Mastodon. Of the three exhibits I’ve presented, Mastodon have easily made the most career shifts. From sludge to prog to hard rock and everywhere in between, Mastodon has rarely spent much time in any one genre. This has had a polarizing effect on fans, with groups of acolytes seemingly splitting off at every new release and demanding the band go back to the style of the previous album. Essentially, arguments about this band genre hopping tend to be from people who want to pigeonhole the group into one genre and who have an unhealthy nostalgia fixation with Leviathan. Interestingly, though, I don’t think you could ever claim this band has attempted to follow any trends. Each new progression has been at the whims of the artists themselves and not due to some emerging scene in heavy music. Therefore, I think it would be more genuine to simply state that you don’t like some of the band’s output because it isn’t in your range of subgenres that you enjoy.
Before I conclude this discussion, I think I would be remiss if I neglected the fact that several metal bands have successfully hopped genres and are typically praised for those progressions. Carcass have morphed from a goregrind unit to a full-on death metal band, dabbling in melodeath along the way. Neurosis began playing hardcore music but eventually spawned post-metal. I’d mention the genres Devin Townsend has played, but I don’t have enough space here for that.
One final thing I’d like to mention is that there is a reasonable counterargument to my assertions here. While discussing this topic, the Masterlord pointed out that some bands might hop genres in order to play a more lucrative form of metal. This in turn may indicate that the band is writing music for the wrong reasons, and those poor motivations will in turn permeate into the quality of their sound. I think this is a fair counterargument, but I don’t think most of the bands that get called genre hoppers are guilty of this. Of all the bands I’ve listed, I think Machine Head may be the only reasonable example of this with their swap to nu metal. In my opinion, the transition back to thrash was a return to their roots, and the genuineness of their intentions is evident in the quality of The Blackening. Moreover, accusations of trying to make money are not what I’m addressing in this post. What I am discussing is the propensity for certain metalheads to get butthurt when bands they like change subgenres. Therefore, I believe my arguments still stand.
As you can hopefully see, genre hopping shouldn’t be an insult. Instead, I earnestly think we should be praising bands for experimenting outside of subgenre confines. If an attempt fails, then so be it. At least the chance was taken. Labeling a band as a genre hopper simply smacks of the fetid elitism with which we in the metal world have been accused of for a very long time. Let’s take a step today to shake off those shackles. Let’s use genre tags wisely and meaningfully. Let’s praise bands for taking chances and weigh them on their merits rather than on what genre they used to play. Let’s make our metal world a better place and stop calling bands genre hoppers. Are you with me?
P.S. I liked Shogun.