Entering my mid 30’s and having 15 years experience as a professional musician, I have the benefit of perspective: seeing trends come and go, and seeing my world, the world of heavy music, truly evolve. I have written ad nauseam about the discomfort that comes with being an aging musician, and feeling more and more disconnected from the “kids today”.
My general view is that I hate feeling like I don’t “get it”, or that I’m not being open minded and allowing nostalgia to skew my ability to decide if the music being played today by the younger generation is objectively worse or just new and different. Because I talk about this so much, it might seem like I am showering the youngins with Haterade, but that’s not my intent. I am just thinking out loud, and talking myself through the process to figure out the whole conundrum, and avoid an ageist sideswipe. Self-awareness is perhaps my greatest virtue, and yet is anxiously self-sabotaging.
After all of the head scratching, one of my big takeaways is that the younger generation of musicians are just better than we were. I can’t say they are better songwriters or that they display more originality and personality, but when it comes to technical ability, these kids are kind of kicking our collective asses.
Need some proof?
It’s true that these examples are parsed anecdotal evidence, but I find that it’s symptomatic of a broader trend.
The significant leaps made in virtuosic playing mostly come down to one phenomenon: The Internet. In the Information Age, information has become democratized. I can only imagine being an intellectually curious young person growing up with modernity’s staggering variety of free learning resources available, provided you have an Internet connection and a computer, tablet or smartphone.
When I started playing guitar in the early 90’s, there only a few methods to learn: by ear, hiring a teacher, guitar magazines like Guitar World, tab books for specific bands or albums, and instructional videos. All of these methods used to cost money. Even if you were learning something by ear, you still had to actually buy the album to listen and learn. I was lucky that my brother (who was also learning guitar) and I had some older friends that gave us a bunch of old guitar magazines and Heavy Metal tapes, but I remember dropping $20-25 on a Metallica Master of Puppets tablature book (which I still have), and a John Petrucci instructional video, Rock Discipline. Right now, you can go on UltimateGuitar.com, and it has the entire Master of Puppets album tabs for free. The entire Petrucci instructional video is on YouTube, again for free.
I don’t want to make it seem like recent times are only high water mark for highly skilled players. The 1980’s, in many ways, launched the idea of the Guitar Hero. Spearheaded by such luminaries as Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoades, the 80’s became an era that was infamous for other worldly levels of technical wizardry, speed, and over-the-top showmanship in the realm of Rock and Metal guitar playing. The Guitar Gods included Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteem, Michael Angelo Batio, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Tony MacAlpine, Marty Friedman, and a million more I don’t have the space to mention. You could not have a Rock band in the 80’s without a spectacularly incendiary guitarist. Even the shitty Glam bands had insane guitarists. There were great bassists and drummers during the era, but guitarists did seem to really steal the spotlight.
By the time I was getting into music in 1991-92, showy instrumentation had gone out of fashion. That narrative was that Grunge’s emergence killed Glam. Bombastic soloing was viewed as self-indulgent, and the Grunge bands were seen as “true artists” who served the song and avoided egocentric attention grabs. This narrative was a bit misleading as the early 90’s saw the emergence of technically spectacular bands like Pantera and Dream Theater and the peak of masterfully musical bands like Megadeth.
The overarching idea of musician-y Rock and Metal going underground was mostly true though. The early 90’s saw the Big 4 of Thrash Metal, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, release their most straight-forward and simplistic, Hard Rock oriented albums, which coincidentally became their biggest selling records as well.
The historic success of bands like Nirvana informed a whole generation of players-in-training that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to be in a great or big band. Much like Punk Rock before it, Grunge embodied an anti-muso ethos, which served as an appropriate bridge to the uprising of the Nu-Metal genre in the late 90’s, which was defined by it’s rudimentary guitar riffs, drum grooves and lyrics that were designed to cast the widest net of listeners.
Although this was the era I grew up in, because of my older friends exposing me to all of the great and musically advanced bands from the 80’s like Testament, Morbid Angel, Kreator, and King Diamond. I was 100% absorbing music that was challenging just as much as I was enjoying the more popular Alternative Rock music of the day.
While the mainstream Rock was very basic, the extreme underground and especially Europe was producing the most technically brilliant Metal ever created. Bands like Meshuggah, At The Gates, and Carcass showed there was new ground yet to be broken.
When my band, God Forbid, was getting started in the late 90’s Hardcore scene, people couldn’t believe we were playing actual guitar solos. We couldn’t believe that we were alone in our quest to play “legitimate Metal”. You had Nu-Metal guys who were shredders in the closet that didn’t show their skill because it was considered uncool. Mick Thompson and Jim Root from Slipknot could shred their asses off from day 1, but didn’t do any guitar solos until their 3rd album in 2004. A lot of people don’t know that Mike Mushok, guitarist from Staind, trained with Tony MacAlpine and can shred all day.
I remember being on tour with Mushroomhead, and watching their guitarist, Gravy, rips some insane leads during sound check and talk about how he “can’t” do that stuff in Mushroomhead. I was flummoxed as to why they felt they needed to hide.
It wasn’t until the New Wave of American Metal emerged in the early 2000’s with God Forbid, Shadows Fall, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, and Darkest Hour that impressive playing became kosher in the mainstream heavy music world. Even though all we were doing was reflecting influence from the 80’s Thrash and Swedish Death Metal we loved. It wasn’t “new” per se. We were just bringing it back.
Back then, having a drummer that could play 1/16 notes with their feet at 190 bpm and above was considered a really big deal. People would come into God Forbid’s rehearsal room around 1997 with their jaw dropped watching our drummer, Corey Pierce, blast away. Corey was a Dave Lombardo disciple. He perceived those as skills you needed to have if you wanted to be in a real band, but at that time it was rarity. There were a handful of people known to be able to do this stuff: Gene Hoglan (Death, Strapping Young Lad), Pete Sandoval (Morbid Angel), Chris Kontos (Machine Head), Paul Bostaph (Slayer), Igor Cavalera (Sepultura) Nicholas Barker (Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir), etc. This was back when you recorded on tape. God Forbid’s first 2 albums (Reject the Sickness & Determination) were recorded on 2 inch tape, and there was no drum editing.
What you hear is what was played. Hearing fast drumming was impressive because you know it had to be done by a person. Corey almost died recording some of those tunes. Now, you can just program it, or just assume that whoever played, it was just quantized and snapped to the grid anyway. Flo Mournier from Cryptopsy was considered to the God of Gods when it came to speed in metal drumming. We didn’t think it could get faster.
In spite of the advances in digital recording technology, it seems that what was once deemed to be extraordinary, is just the ground floor to even be a drummer in a metal band. Because now, drummers have to be able to replicate what some nerd programmed on midi with no regard for how human limbs work.
The videos above are indeed performed by some of the best drummers currently in extreme Metal, but it just feels less impressive as it was in the 90’s because it seems like these guys grow on trees now. I’m not sure if players are going faster than they were, but this new generation comes off as performing these magnificent feats with relative ease. The speed and precision are just tools to be utilized as needed. The older generation seemed to be wrestling with the limitations of their own bodies, always in physical struggle, barely making it to the finish line.
The rise and plateau of the NWOAHM movement as well as the explosion of Scandinavian Metal opened the floodgates in the mid 2000’s for musically dynamic subgenres like Deathcore, Tech Death, and the reemergence of Progressive Metal, which lead to Djent. The flood of tremendous young players in these genres is staggering and somewhat intimidating as guitar player feeling that you may be getting outclassed from a technical standpoint. I was considered to be a high level Metal guitarist 10 years ago, but I often feel like a simpleton in comparison. Potential obsolescence is something I worry about from time to time (which is why I keep practicing).
Jon Donais, lead guitarist from Shadows Fall (and currently Anthrax) was viewed as a rarified, throwback virtuoso in the early 2000’s. Outside of Nevermore and some of the more impressive Swedish bands, they just didn’t make guys like that very often; he was a standout.
Much like the trend with drumming, what once seemed novel, now appears to be run-of-the-mill. The ascension of teenage, upstart prodigies, Trivium, in 2005 was one of the first signs of the bar being raised by the youth.
Jumpstarted by overtly flashy playing by bands like Unearth and Children of Bodom, the appearance of the almost absurdly blistering “Through Fire and Flames” by Dragonforce in the megahit Guitar Hero video game franchise in 2007 signified that the tide had fully turned. What made this so significant was that “Through Fire and Flames” was the most popular song on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which was the highest selling video game of 2007.
This meant that an entire generation of young people were getting their introduction to Heavy Metal and the idea of picking up an instrument from a song that was famous for being comically difficult to play. These millennials were starting on 3rd base. It’s analogous to how Ray Kurzweil talks about exponential growth in technology in regards to the Singularity; you use the current technology to create the future technology. You are always standing on the shoulders of giants.
Another significant change during this period in the culture was how the Internet created a more engaged musician online community. In the past, it was difficult to make a living as band catering mainly to other musicians. You had to have Joe Six Pack in the back of your mind. This is no longer the case.
Bands like Periphery and Tesseract built followings, before they were signed to record labels, by being involved in online communities and giving away their music in demo form for free, and acted as peers sharing their gear and technique secrets. It was open source and communal.
Now, there are entire subgenres of bands where it seems as if their fanbase is primarily comprised of other musicians. It’s only possible now because we have the capability to directly reach those people on websites like Sevenstring.org or Rig-talk.com, if you are good enough. The standards are high, and the scene is more of a meritocracy. I can’t imagine a fully instrumental band like Animals as Leaders being able to have the popularity and reach without this shift in the music culture. The pie is bigger and Proggers of old like Dream Theater, Meshuggah, and Opeth are bigger than ever, so you have a whole generation of bands that seem to solely create music for other musicians and the bar keeps getting raised and raised and raised.
And you have this…
I didn’t hear any mistakes. Did you? I thought about trying out for the Faceless, and then I saw this video.
I don’t think I heard any mistakes there either. You also have a band like Allegaeon. My hands hurt just watching this.
…or guitar genius Dave Davidson from Revocation.
…or Travis Montgomery from Threat Signal.
…or rhythm aficionado Olly Steele from Monuments.
These are just a handful of spectacular musicians that show us what once was special will maybe just barely afford you a seat at the table. I have to give credit where credit is due. I complain about the state of heavy music all the time, and I don’t exactly think the songwriting and inventiveness is at an all-time high, but damn; these kids can play.