Sunday, January 10, 2010

Terrors of the Deep

Beauty Bar, 1/8

Aging gracefully is all about accepting the things you cannot change and finding ways of working constructively within the constraints of reality. In a perfect world, the inspired Squidbucket would be one of the most admired bands in the city. It's difficult, but I accept that intense, roiling, precisely composed all-instrumental prog-metal music is going to be an uphill sell for most listeners. (When and if I get bigwesternflavor T-shirts printed up, one of them is going to have a picture of me scowling and beneath it the caption "LISTEN TO MORE RUSH.")

So rather than praising them for the specific things they do that set them apart in their chosen field, let me speak to Squidbucket with regards to the traits they have that musicians of any style from Christian to country would do well to imitate. It's harder to follow their ideas at times because they're such unconventional thinkers, but the main idea is very simple. You don't have to be an exquisitely talented player (although all three of the guys in Squidbucket are unreal) to absorb the lesson and apply it. Are you ready? Here it is: there is more than one groove.

In a week when I tried hard to measure the qualities of more than 20 different bands, the biggest thing that separated the ones that left me wanting more from the ones that bored me after three songs was the confidence to explore different rhythms and different feels. In a time when most musical judgments are arrived upon in 30 seconds or less and few listeners feel compelled to sample more than two or three tracks from any given band, I can appreciate why so many young groups are fearful of change. More emphasis is placed now on self-marketing than ever before, and it's easier to market what's readily identifiable. In order to make music a career, however, one has to develop confidence in their ability to shed influences, grow and change, surprise even the listeners who have all their records and sing along to every song. Your "sound" shouldn't rigidly be defined for all time by the first five songs you work up. Bands need faith in that the sound of their playing, their combination of instruments and voices, is what makes them distinctive.

There isn't necessarily any connection between musical experience and the ability to create more than one groove. There are a lot of drab acts in Austin, a town with no shortage of technically explosive players, who play the same boogie for hours upon end. Their chops are undeniable, but their performances are seldom interesting for any longer than five minutes. Squidbucket could probably jam on three chords for ten minutes at a time and it might even win them more fans than they have now, as gifted a bassist, drummer, and guitarist as they are. But that wouldn't be particularly interesting or challenging for the band, and the standards they set for their music are designed to push the musicians' boundaries.

But pushing boundaries can mean pulling back at times. Jason Erwin, Kurt Rightler, and Eric Brown are all experts at their respective instruments. If their songs were in a Guitar Hero game (and they should be), all of the charts would be at the far deep end of the difficulty pool, right there with Dragonforce and King Crimson. But each and every one of them is willing to lay back at points. Erwin and Rightler finger-tap and Brown plays polyrhythms with such might that at times they can sound like six people playing instead of three. But the guitar also plays easy chunky chords sometimes. The bass can be foundational. The drums get straightforward for a second, then suddenly Brown is playing twos against threes with every limb and battering the hi-hat with such speed that his arms become a blur.

But they're not the same thing all the time. Erwin can play electric like a classical guitar, shaping delicate and contained lines that deepen and subvert the feel of the heavier crunching parts when they inevitably arrive. Brown can play a jazz waltz and a tom-driven hydra-headed compound beat within the same song and have both sound like precisely the right choice at the time.

Because I listen very intently, count along constantly, and spend a lot of time practicing guitar, bass, and drums myself, I can get hung up on technical ability at times. Being a master of your chosen instrument (something I admit with no small regret I'll never be) definitely makes it easier to stand out as an original, since you've got a bigger bag of tricks and more control over putting your own signature on different old ideas. But what's most important isn't merely being technically skilled, it's using what skill you have to make every song special and different, personal and meaningful. Combine instrumental precision with an equal commitment to exploring new ideas and defying expectations, then you're really getting somewhere.

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