Monday, 9 December 2013

Bands Using Gimmicks: A Disguise For A Lack Of Talent?

Apologies for the second detour from my mini-schedule (next one will be the Critics VS Fans article: I'm part of the way through it as I type this), but this is an issue that I felt was somewhat more interesting to talk about, as it is generally something I tend to spot getting used as a reason to dislike a band, even among people who normally would give a band a fair chance. In part, this is motived by an argument I happened to read on a forum which I visit (which I will not name) and by a review of an album, both of which involve the A Cappella power metal band (I swear I didn't make that up) Van Canto. Basically, these guys perform power metal music, but they do it pretty much completely A Cappella (they do have a normal drummer, but that's only because they couldn't find someone capable of beatboxing double bass without passing out). And quite a few people seem to believe that it's a gimmick which they only use because they can't perform their music in the "tradition" way you hear in metal. And this got me thinking: is a band that uses a gimmick necessarily a worse band than one who doesn't? After all, death metal and black metal bands tend to have rather limited ranges of topics to cover in their songs, so could it be argued that they use a gimmick by singing about stuff in this limited range of topics? And is metal being too limited by having the required typical set up we have come to associate with metal? That is what I aim to look at and, hopefully, provide some answers to those questions.

So, first of all, let's look at what can be considered a gimmick in music. And, surprisingly, it covers a wide range of things. Some bands generally write about certain topics and don't touch anything else, but are otherwise completely serious (for example, you could consider Running Wild to be a gimmick band because they are mostly known for writing about pirates, although it should be noted that their early albums didn't actually cover pirates and they have covered other topics over the course of their career) while some go far enough as to wear costumes on stage (such as Alestorm, although their keyboardist's side project, Gloryhammer, go slightly further than this). So, obviously, the line between what can be fairly considered "gimmicky" is very much down to how much fun you want to have with music: if it's something which has to be serious at all times, then everything I've just listed should be a gimmick to you (key word being "should": there are a depressingly large number of extreme metal fans who don't appreciate the irony of saying a band is gimmicky, yet have no issue with extreme metal bands covering a rather narrow range of topics...but, then again, a depressingly large number of extreme metal fans consider anything with clean vocals to be close to mainstream, so their opinion there could probably be taken with a pinch of salt), while, if you don't mind bands doing stuff if it's all just for fun, everything else should be fine with a lot of people. Many people like to use the fact the band does have a gimmick as a reason just to dislike the band without stopping to consider the actual quality of their material, but it's very rare that you'll find someone who DOES like an act with a gimmick commenting on it, which leads me to suspect that a lot of people will only complain about a gimmick when it comes to bands they do not like. If you will, when they are looking for a reason to dislike a band, the gimmick is the big neon sign they can easily point out. Personally, I actually find that the more gimmicky bands are what I prefer whenever a band has a gimmick, as the more serious bands tend to be far more arrogant. Take Manowar, for example: you could fairly argue that they have a gimmick of basically singing about vikings and being ridiculously over the top, yet they take it incredibly seriously (a shining example being a comment they made early in their career about only Black Sabbath being a true metal band, possibly also including Judas Priest). This means that it's hard for me to look at them and not consider them (or, at least, their bassist) to be arrogant bastards. I could excuse this if I actually liked their music, but...well, I generally don't! By contrast, Alestorm are generally disliked for basically taking pirate metal a bit too far, but I find them to be a lot of fun because they do that and aren't arrogant about it. This is where you can see the dividing line kicking in for me: if  a band is very serious about their gimmick, I tend to not be impressed with them, but, if a band is clearly just having fun with it, I can get behind them because they're not taking themselves too seriously. I guess Van Canto (to return back to the band I first mentioned) could fall somewhere between the two extremes, as it's rather hard to not be serious about being able to perform metal A Cappella, but they include a lot of covers of metal songs that are a lot of fun to listen to and they're not arrogant about their ability to do with only voices (and a drummer) what most bands need instruments to do.

Which leads me to the second question I want to answer: is metal being too limited because of the typical expectations regarding instruments? Now, before I start this, I'm well aware that folk metal and symphonic metal generally include instruments that aren't typically seen in a metal band, but you can still find at least one guitarist, one bassist and one drummer in the band: what I'm talking about is metal being made without at least one of those instruments. And this is a somewhat tricky topic to cover: after all, it's the downtuned and distorted riffs of the guitar and bass that help place a band in the metal genre, so what happens when you take them out of the song? Can you still say that a band is a metal band just because it doesn't use them? Well, I'm going to have to side with the people who say that a band is less metal because it doesn't use guitar and bass, if only because it does make it harder to fairly place them into the metal genre of music. If, however, the material they produce would sound like metal if it were played on typical instruments, I think they should still be placed in the metal genre. It is this that, I think, more metal fans need to bear in mind when they listen to a band who plays metal music on different instruments: at the end of the day, it's not the instruments the music is performed on that is important, but the music itself. Does this mean metal is being too limited because of this reliance on those instruments? Possibly, but I think that the boundaries are starting to break down a bit thanks to symphonic and folk metal, so I don't think these limits are going to be a huge issue twenty years from now (although I rather doubt metal will go through a synth period on the same level as pop did during the 80's...mind you, not having a huge issue with 80's pop, I wouldn't object to a band trying this!)

So this brings to my final point: is a band with a gimmick necessarily worse than a band without one? I would say it depends on how strong their music is if you view it purely on it's own merits: if it's not great music, it's not gonna become great music if you perform it while a one legged dwarf is dancing the tango to it. If it's a great song, then it's a great song and nothing more needs to be said. I know this is a bit of an anticlimax, but, really, what more can I say?

So I guess the best way to view bands with a gimmick is not to evaluate the band's gimmick, but to evaluate the band itself the same way you would evaluate a band without a gimmick: judge the skills of the members and the quality of their music. A gimmick might impact your initial opinion of a band, but it shouldn't be your only reason to dislike them, just as you shouldn't hate a band only because they are popular.

(...As a side note relating to remaining posts over the course of 2013, I will be taking a small break from working on posts over the next few days, as I have a lot I need to do on Monday (and possibly Tuesday, if I don't finish the work on Monday) relating to a bunch of short stories I'm working on and, based on a bit of news I got while finishing this off, I'm likely to be receiving some pretty serious news on Wednesday. As such, it's possible that I might not feel up to writing stuff for a while. If this happens, I can only apologise if this means the posts I said I'd be doing get pushed back to 2014. I don't like failing to do stuff, but...well, this is likely to be news that is going to put me in a pretty bad emotional state for a bit of time, so I'll not be in the frame of mind I prefer to be in while writing these posts. Thank you for your patience and, on the off chance I don't return to the blog this year, I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!)

On a completely unrelated note, here's a song by a band I've recently started listening to. Genuinely no reason for posting this, just really like it and want to share it with more people!

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