Clinging to Life: Rock and Roll's Advanced Directive
I'm sure this bums them out, but Fall Out Boy will forever be remembered as the musical outfit of a vertically challenged, attention-whoring bass player. (Well, that and one catchy pop tune that really hasn't aged well.) What they are not known for is consistently releasing top notch guitar-oriented rock music. In fact, it's fair to say that Fall Out Boy is the progenitor of fun. and Passion Pit, meaning their populous hipster appeal is one of the principle reasons why people have begun confusing their brand of anti-rock garbage with actual rock music. Thus, it's likewise fair to hate them for their influence as well as the general teen-bop mediocrity.
Yet, earlier this year, Fall Out Boy inexplicably chose to title [what was supposed to be] their comeback album Save Rock and Roll, which failed miserably at executing it's stated purpose. While the title was a bit of a head-scratcher, the failure made perfect sense. How could a band uninterested in rock and roll save the genre?
After giving Save Rock and Roll an obligatory spin last night, I couldn't help but self-assuredly laugh at the absurdity of the album's title in comparison to its actual material. SR&R is a glossy, cameo-rich pop album made by a band clearly frightened about their individual futures. After a few moments of smug satisfaction, this thought then led to the anxiety-ridden realization that rock and roll, at least the brand of heavily riff-oriented rock and roll that I prefer, really is dead. It speaks to the inconspicuous absence of riff-oriented rock and roll that it took a Fall Out Boy album to make me realize just how much I miss the departed.
It's been roughly a decade since any new bands predicated on the guitar riff burst on the scene. A lot of people think The Black Keys are relative newcomers, but they've been kicking ass since 2001. The same can be said for My Morning Jacket and their achingly gorgeous Southern Gothic soundscapes. They now have nearly 15 years under their belts and actually seem much closer to the end of their run than the beginning.
There were some great indie bands that emerged at the turn of the millennium, but they were never really as concerned with riffs as they were with their indie street cred. Bands like The Strokes, The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and even the darkly neurotic Interpol have all pretty much reached the end of their ropes as their desired demographic has grown up, quit their coke habits, and moved to their respective cheap condos.
Alt-rock radio favorites like Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown are the closest things to real riff-based rock out there, as they've proven capable of consistently releasing quality, albeit templated, guitar-driven singles. The problem with these bands is that they're defined more by the over-produced vocal isolation of their verses rather than any signature riffage throughout the tracks. They can play, they just usually decide not to until it's time for a big, hooky chorus.
As for the rockers of yesteryear, they're still pumping out new albums, but these works sound more like the death rattle of a bygone era than they do a riff resurgence. True, Queens of the Stone Age just released the best album of their career, but Pearl Jam and Soundgarden also released new work this year, and both of those albums are mind-numbingly boring wastes of musicianship. Stone Temple Pilots have decided to let the blonde dude from Linkin Park play the part of Scott Weiland to nauseating effects, and Alice in Chains also tried to replace their irreplaceable front man with a poor imitation with even poorer results.
Given this brief personal summary of the landscape, the obvious question involves a glaring omission: If none of these bands are either willing or capable of carrying on the riff-rock tradition, who will? Is anyone going to step up and remind us what it means to ignore the preferred template of studio execs everywhere and rock uninhibited? Or does the popular decline of prominent guitar work, as signified by the devolution of modern rock radio, officially signal the end of rock and roll?
Historically, there's always been a torch to pass from one generation of rockers to the next. Although everyone certainly has their favorite periods, rock and roll as a whole consistently managed to survive as it progressed through several different iterations - blues, punk, metal, grunge, alternative. While it's a lot of fun to talk about the different eras of rock and roll, these individual epochs have always felt like smaller part of a larger unified whole, despite their distinguishing elements.
Taking that idea one step further, I'd actually argue that while we understand time as a linear phenomenon, rock and roll is equal parts chronological and cumulative. Once a signature sound is established, it becomes part of the larger canon and allows wholesale access for subsequent generations. For instance, since The Who existed in 1972, they plausibly could have existed in 1996 because Pete Townsend established that sound at a definite point along the continuum of rock.
This scenario works in reverse as well. Take The Black Crowes, for instance. Play Shake Your Money Maker for a college kid today, and I guarantee you that it will be a tough sell convincing him or her that they were a band from the '90s and not the '70s. The point being that rock builds upon itself; it relies on certain forbearers for progression. But when those forbearers are more like ancestors, some of their vitality wears off, which is why it's important for a watershed band to come around every so often. It's the same thing as changing your oil or painting your house, but with a little more emotion involved.
Sometimes the smartest move is to look to the past to make a statement in the present, but since there hasn't been a reliable band with an innovative sound to shake the foundations of the landscape within at least the last ten years or so, modern bands have been left without a needle to guide their respective sonic compasses. Sadly, this means that the rest of us have had to temper our standards or discard the rock genre altogether in order to skip the grieving process.
Hysterical Hollywood-esque Chest Pounding
There's always that penultimate moment in your favorite overly dramatic serial television program where the principle character is lying prostrate on the floor. They're not breathing and their BFFF, or their love interest, or even their nemesis is desperately searching for a pulse that just isn't there. They're alternately pounding the hell out of our hero's chest cavity and breathing into his or her mouth, but to no avail. All is lost, and there's just no point in going on. We stare on in utter shock and dread as the would-be savior rises and wanders away from the lifeless body. A blank look of disbelief spreads across his sweating face, and he turns one last time to gaze lovingly at the deceased. Suddenly, he furrows his brow, storms back toward the body and begins frantically throwing haymakers fit for a prize fight on top of the still chest. Everyone else tries to intervene, imploring him to stop and insisting that our friend is gone. Undeterred, the rib pummeling continues until one especially potent blow leads to a massive and miraculous breath, which is then followed by increasingly stable breaths. Our hero is alive, and the fight continues, damn it all!
Like the revived protagonist's chest, rock and roll is badly bruised and gasping for air. Critics and fans alike have been beating the living shit out of it for a long time now in the desperate hope that there's still a little breath left in those collapsed lungs. And there are a few signs that my coroner's report is a bit premature.
After all, Pearl Jam's aforementioned album did enter the charts as the number one album in the United States, and the likewise aforementioned QOTSA release was a throwback to earlier iterations of no holds barred riffage. Baroness' 2012 release, Yellow and Green has the makings of a Prog-rock classic, and their fellow Athenians, Mastodon, are currently in the studio working on a highly anticipated 2014 release. Also, Tool has been recording new material for some time now, kindling genuine hope that Maynard and the boys have one more round in them. And really, that's all it will take - just one well placed punch to topple the poseurs currently occupying rock radio.
From "Peggy Sue" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," rock music has always relied heavily on a shepherd's call to lead the fledgling flock out of the darkness. And while there aren't many candidates in 2013 to assume this position, as long as the elder statesmen continue to supply a pulse, there's a chance that a group of youthful axe-slinging pupils will transplant themselves into the musical consciousness. Let's hope 2014 is the year that proper rock and roll makes its rightful and triumphant return. If not, at least we always have an easy scapegoat in Fall Out Boy.
These kids get it.