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On the Superiority of Early Recordings
by Noctir (Dec. 2010)

In many creative fields, it is often true that the artist's earliest works are usually the best; the ones most worth remembering and those that really set the standard by which the artist would always be compared. In general, this is also accurate when it comes to music. Regardless of genre (or sub-genre), the early material is usually considered to be the best, or the most pure and meaningful. For bands that quickly disappear after a couple albums, such a matter is not cause for concern. However, those that endure for many years (or decades) must face the irrefutable fact that the quality of their music is quite likely to deteriorate; at least in the eyes of their fans. The changes that a band go through can be caused by many factors: time constraints and label pressure, other outside influences, changing musical landscape, larger budget / perfectionism, stagnation or development of musicians, age, etc.

While not always true, most metal bands aren't given recording contracts within a few weeks or months of forming. They go through a lengthy process of finding the right members and deciding upon a creative direction, and then gradually honing their craft. They rehearse as much as possible, with only the dream of making a single album motivating them to push forward. They record demo tapes and put a lot of effort into their first songs. Through rehearsals and playing live, they work on the songs, revising them and getting everything just right, as they go along. At this stage, they are struggling to get noticed by fans and labels, in the hopes of securing a deal and releasing a proper album. And that isn't really for the purpose of attaining fame or glory, but simply to make a record of their own and contribute something. In many cases, the bands haven't thought far beyond making that one album, so they pour all of their energy into it. In general, during this phase of a band's existence, the primary thing is creating. If the band happens to attain even a small level of success, things transform rapidly.

Once the band is signed to a label, inevitably, things become different. How much they change really depends on the size of the label. Within the underground, it is much more negligible. However, for those bands that signed to a larger label, a wide variety of new forces begin acting upon them. They may be told, directly, to alter their sound in one way or another, with the goal of appealing to a broader audience and reaching a higher level of success. This same decision could also come from within, as well. To use well-known examples, just think of Slayer and Metallica. After signing with Rick Rubin, Slayer was advised to get rid of the reverb and trim the songs down, thus over-simplifying them and sacrificing a great deal of atmosphere, in order to gain a larger following. The masses like music that is easily digested and doesn't require much attention or thought. A similar thing happened to Metallica, as Bob Rock was brought in to produce their self-titled album. Rather than following the dictates of their inner creativity and passion, they listened to a big-time producer who was looking for radio hits and did a great job in transforming the band into a stadium Rock act. Credibility was traded for mass acceptance.

One must also consider time. In the early part of their career, a band creates songs at their own pace, with months or even years to get them exactly as they want. After signing a recording contract, they begin pumping albums out each year, or every other year. The strange thing is that, early on, the band has more time to create but less time to record. Once signed to a label, they have a larger budget and more studio time, but not as much time to perfect the songs before they go into the studio. So, what the end up doing is writing a lot of the album as they're recording it, and then experimenting with the new technology that is available to them, since most people are nothing more than overgrown children anyway and prefer to play with things, whenever they get the chance. At any rate, another thing to take into consideration would have to be touring. Sometimes, a record must be rushed in order to take advantage of a touring opportunity. This results in a drop in quality, in a lot of cases.

Look at Testament, for example. The songs that made it to The Legacy had been worked on for several years, and they had ample time to perfect them. This yielded, arguably, the best album of their entire career. However, once they were releasing albums on a yearly basis, they became watered-down and more generic. After a couple of lackluster records, they began to get back on track with Souls of Black, but it still lacked the passion and intensity of the first album. And later on, of course, they tried to follow in Metallica's footsteps, with The Ritual. In the end, they succeeded only in alienating their fan base.

And that brings up another point. Once a band gets even the slightest taste of mainstream success, they throw creativity overboard in an attempt to cash in. This can be in response to similar bands getting big or it can be limited to their own success; i.e. they get radio play for a song and then attempt to repeat themselves. After Metallica's 1991 self-titled monstrosity, many Thrash bands tried to jump on the bandwagon, slowing down and making much more simplistic music. And if they managed to get the slightest bit of notice for those efforts, then it usually spelled doom for any sincerity that the band had left. Dave Mustaine admitted that he altered his songwriting in hopes of creating radio hits. The spirit of metal had been consumed by his own greed. The problem with metal bands trying to be pop stars is that it just doesn't work that way, nine times out of ten. Pop music is not art, but rather a corporate imitation of art. Professional songwriters are tapped into popular culture and they know how to exploit the tastes of the masses, writing simplistic, catchy garbage that will be easily digested. Record companies then find someone to perform those songs, often putting together their own groups for just that purpose. However, metal was never meant to be for everyone. When metal bands try to sell out, they usually fall flat on their faces, alienating their fans and going unnoticed by the mainstream.

Another factor to consider has to be that of outside influences of a different kind. This can mean a number of things, including bands trying to take elements of more popular / trendy music and incorporating it into their own style, or making changes in order to “keep up” with others within their particular sub-genre.

As an example of the former, one need look no farther than Anthrax and Slayer. In the mid-to-late 90s, each band transformed into something quite unlike what they had started out as. Anthrax added elements of alternative Rock on Sound of White Noise, and then tried their hardest to emulate Pantera in the years that followed. Slayer took influences from the pathetic and trendy "nu-metal" scene, with bouncy groove-laden riffs interspersed with riffs more typical of the band. In both cases, the end result was laughable and disgusting.

To shift focus to an example of the latter form of submitting to outside influences, one can see this with the deterioration of the death metal scene in the 1990s. Many bands were trying to outdo one another in terms of being more “sick” and “brutal” than the next guys, playing as fast as possible, with the vocals getting deeper and the musicians including more random time changes, with the end result being that the atmosphere of the originators was forever lost. Not long after, in the realm of black metal, a lot of bands jumped on the symphonic bandwagon (as well as industrial or experimental), to keep up with the times. Once something gets popular, it seems everyone has to join in. Losing sight of your own creativity, making decisions based on what others are doing, will usually have a detrimental effect on what you are doing. Occasionally, it can be a beneficial thing, as it can motivate a band to tighten up their sound and not be shown up by others that they end up playing with, resulting in them putting forth the most effort possible and improving themselves. This is most applicable in the band's early stages. But, more often than not, bands end up joining one herd or another.

As the years go by, inevitably, most musicians become better acquainted with their instruments, songwriting and the recording process. Early on, they may have been learning on the job and, in later years, they reach a point where they might look down on their previous accomplishments and view their old albums as flawed and imperfect. There are two different ways that an artist can approach this. On one hand, they may feel that the very style itself is limiting and boring. They would prefer to add new dimensions to their sound, in the name of artistic progression or musical evolution. Whether they wish to show off their new skills or just expand the boundaries of the band's established style, the end result is the same. On the other hand, the band might choose to stick to their roots, but to make an attempt to perfect their sound. Utilizing modern production techniques and more proficient abilities, they maintain the same style, yet they are always in a state of perfecting their sound and attempting to achieve the ultimate expression of their vision. Unfortunately, modern recording techniques will always fall short in terms of atmosphere and character, when compared to a more primitive and old school approach. So even when trying to remain true to who they are, such bands will come off as a pale shadow of their former selves, churning out stale and rehashed music that shows no overall advancement. So, in a sense, musicians are damned either way.

Of course, one can also look at the age of the musicians. Say, for the sake of argument, that they maintain their traditional style and don't go overboard with modern sounds, the fires of creativity fade away with time. The passion and energy gives way to an emptiness that cannot be avoided. Eventually, bands lose their ability to make worthwhile music. For some, it may take ten or twenty years; for others, it may take two or three. Nothing lasts forever, and there is no escaping the fact that a band (or any other type of artist) will, at some point, fail to live up to the accomplishments of the past.

Many would like to write this off as some sort of “elitist attitude”, as if no one really likes the old albums from a band; those that profess to like the demos and first couple of releases must be trying to impress others, as surely they cannot believe what they're saying. People who recognize this must just be trying to go against the grain, in the minds of these people. However, there may be a reason for this erroneous thinking. In a lot of cases, a band doesn't reach a certain level of popularity until their third of fourth album, at which point their audience grows and more casual fans become aware of them. So, naturally, these types will prefer the material that drew them in, as opposed to those fans who were there from the beginning. Still, one must not have to be there at the start of a band's career to realize that the old stuff is, typically, much better. It's not a matter of trying to seem “cool” by shunning the popular albums and embracing the lesser known ones; it's the simple process of recognizing the energy, creativity and passion that exists in the early stages of a band's existence, as evidenced through their demos and early albums, and realizing that this is no longer present as the years pass by.

In the end, there is no right or wrong. It all boils down to personal opinion, and this is mine.

Copyright 2006-2021, Noctir