When Hardcore Goes Soft

I like hard rock. I like metal. I listen to it when the mood strikes, and I need to feel those primal sounds. I do admit to being highly selective in my headbanger selections though. I like hard rock and metal that has an underlying melodic structure to it that is readily apparent. I’ve not been a fan of thrash, punk, grindcore, and similar genres; just a slog of guitar cranked to 11 with vocals croaking buried in the mix has little appeal to me. I usually hit “skip” whenever I hear buzzsaw guitar/pummeling drums wall-of-sound backing growling death metal vocals – that raw-throated croak that arose out of the punk metal movement. AC/DC yes, Metallica no. A Perfect Circle yes, Megadeth no. Soundgarden yes, Mastodon no (must be something about metal groups starting with “M”).

But Pandora opened my ears to two denizens of the hardcore genre. Alexisonfire’s Dallas Green has a side project, City and Colour, wherewith the death metal vocalist/guitarist slings an acoustic guitar behind his soaring, rich, piercing vocals for stunning “singer/songwriter” style songs. Alexisonfire is mostly unmerciful hardcore, shredding axes and larnyxes  equally. City and Colour make the singer/songwriter genre man up while retaining all of the delicacy of the form. Sometimes (2005) and Bring Me Your Love (2008) are outstanding collections, showcasing his skill on guitar, his songwriting craft, and his singing. Introspective, delicate, but strong, City and Colour ain’t no James Taylor, Jason Mraz, or John Mayor. Green’s voice soars and sears as much as it whispers and emotes.

City and Colour - SometimesSometimes is mostly Green and his acoustic guitar on emotional, introspective songs. Bring Me Your Love has more backing, more variation in tempos, and seems more upbeat. I recommend both equally. Green won a Juno award (Canada’s “Grammy”) for Sometimes, and kudos to them for recognizing a real talent.

As a die-hard prog rock fan, I find the current trend of prog metal interesting. Clearly the best proponent of that genre is Porcupine Tree, with their Fear Of A Blank Planet exemplifying it perfectly. Steven Wilson’s influence extends beyond his many groups, both directly and indirectly (listen to Abigail’s Ghost’s Selling Insincerity for an excellent Porcupine Tree-influenced collection). Regarding the former – direct influence – I heard a cut by Opeth from Damnation, “Windowpane,” on Pandora that clearly had Wilson lineage, and my ears were correct. Wilson produced and played on Opeth’s Damnation, and it belongs among a prog rock collection as one of the best.

From what I can ascertain listening to past Opeth releases, they are expert practitioners of Swedish death metal … right up to 2003’s Damnation. On that release they shifted genres completely, crafting a beautiful, rich, lyrical, adventurous, spacey collection of current day prog. It is a beautiful album, with soaring and melodic vocals, guitar solos reverbing over keyboards, and drums bashing out time signatures not often heard in hardcore.

The follow-up to DamnationGhost Reveries, indicated that Damnation may have been a one-off for Opeth. Some of the prog directions make strong appearances in some of the albums cuts, but it was also very much a return to buzzsaw guitar, pummeling drums, and growling vocals shredding tonsils.

Opeth - WatershedIt seems that Opeth wasn’t quite done exploring prog more thoroughly, as 2008’s Watershed tipped the balance of tunes back towards Damnation‘s prog leanings over hardcore. But Watershed is a fascinating fusion of the death metal and prog rock forms – extending both genres’ boundaries. Opeth inserts hardcore as elements in prog compositions and visa versa, along with old-fashioned heavy metal, creating their unique form prog metal. Yet, they tip their musical hats to Pink Floyd, Tool, Rush, and Porcupine Tree clearly in various passages. And on the extended version of Watershed, Opeth link their explorations succinctly with their psychedelic metal heritage, playing a spit-perfect cover of Robin Trower’s “Bridge Of Sighs.” It is almost a verbatim reading of the song until the extended coda on the end, when Opeth inserts two guitar solos that make the song their own; one, a subtle, elegant passage that captures the song lyric’s sadness, and the other a touch more aggressive that brings Opeth’s musical bent into the piece.

I’m not sure how Opeth’s core audience takes these latest musical moves by the band, but they sure are making this old prog rocker stand up and take notice.

I never doubted that death metal musicians were skilled musicians; my musical preference is based solely on what I like. What I find so compelling about City and Colour and Opeth’s latest releases is to hear that musicianship and skill in musical frameworks that I, personally, enjoy. These are great finds. I really hope both continue to explore them.