I Am Musician, Hear Me Roar
In Which Our Hero Asks, How Complex Is Too Complex?

Two years from now, this date is going to be awesome.

So I saw two mad movies this weekend, and it got me thinking about complexity, and whether too much of it sucks all the enjoyment out of things. It’s not often that I’ll complain about filmmakers trying to do too much, instead of just lazily sleepwalking through another formulaic nothing of a movie. I’m a big fan of ambition, even when it doesn’t work out as well as it should. But I’m also a big fan of things making sense, and if there are important plot points that stayed in the director’s head, then the movie on the screen just isn’t going to work.

That’s what I think happened with Richard Kelly’s The Box. Kelly, you may remember, is the man behind Donnie Darko, a movie in which style and atmosphere made up for a lack of coherence. In some ways, the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko was a failure – the director’s cut certainly filled in a lot of the blanks, and made the whole thing make more sense. But the richness of style, the sense of creeping mystery, carried the day. The same could be said of his follow-up, the unkempt Southland Tales, although instead of style, that one had an intriguingly skewed viewpoint and lots of bizarre humor.

The Box, however, is just a mess. It’s based on Richard Matheson’s story Button, Button, but instead of the sleek and elegant shape of that tale, Kelly’s story sprawls out into NASA’s Mars probes, unexplained lightning strikes, vast conspiracies, alien personality tests, glimpses of the afterlife, and teleportation – that last involving huge columns of water that end up flooding one’s house. If you’re waiting for any of this to be explained, keep waiting. The Box just throws it at you and expects you to keep up.

I didn’t. About an hour in, I just gave up trying to understand the ridiculousness unfolding in front of me. The movie tries to do too much, and ends up doing very little. Again, I expect there’s an hour or so of missing footage that would clear a lot of this up. But the movie was too complex, too baffling and off-putting, for me to care very much.

Director Grant Helsov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, on the other hand, tackles a similarly wide range of crazy, but you never feel like this movie is spiraling out of control. In fact, I thought it was wonderful. It’s based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name, and details one reporter’s discovery of a secret U.S. Army unit dedicated to developing psychic powers. It’s batshit insane, but it knows it, and it winks at you the entire time. Plus, this movie has the added benefit of George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, all at their hilarious best.

The difference, I think, is that Helsov is master of his movie’s tone and structure, while Kelly is not. Helsov knows exactly what he wants to tackle – he’s making a satire of the crazy uses the military finds for its budget, in the constant search for global supremacy, and everything works to that end. Kelly isn’t sure what the hell he’s doing, and he’s piled four million different ideas into the same space, and then seems surprised when they drown each other out. Kelly’s a gifted filmmaker, but next time out, he needs to take it down a couple of notches and work on something with a clear goal.

Anyway, don’t listen to the lousy reviews The Men Who Stare at Goats has drawn. By the end of that movie, I felt like I’d just gotten off a carnival ride. Complex and wide-ranging, but very funny and easy to digest. See it!

* * * * *

So, speaking of complexity…

I had a discussion with a friend this weekend about whether musicians make better music reviewers. My answer was (and is) that sometimes, they do. It depends on the music in question.

Most music is created to be enjoyed by everyone. Either you like it or you don’t, but most music doesn’t intentionally get in your way. It wants to be liked. Whether or not you know how it’s made, or how many different types of chords went into it, or what time signature it’s in doesn’t matter. Music provokes emotional responses, and most critics will simply write down their own gut reactions to a song or an album. And that’s all most readers are looking for. In fact, it’s all most music fans are looking for.

Here’s a f’rinstance. I love the music of Ben Folds. I also play piano and (sometimes) write songs. But when I’m listening to Ben Folds, it’s not usually as a piano player or a songwriter, but just as a guy who loves music. I liked Whatever and Ever Amen partially because of the tremendous skill that went into crafting it, but mostly because it moved me and made me laugh. I didn’t like Way to Normal because it did neither.

But there is some music made almost exclusively for musicians, music that requires you to have a working knowledge of theory and some idea just how difficult it is to play each instrument involved. This is music whose entire purpose is to show off the inhuman chops of its players. This is nothing new – orchestral music has followed the same path for centuries, and there are pieces only those who have mastered their instruments can play.

For the purposes of this silly music column, though, I’ll be talking about two genres – thrash metal and prog. This is music that most people will simply greet with a befuddled look. With thrash, you can feel the aggression, and respond to it, but if you don’t know what it takes to create this music, and how damn difficult it is to play, its reason for being will go right past you. Prog is similar, for different reasons – the whole point of prog rock is to create symphonies with standard instrumentation, so songs will go on for 20, 30, even 60 minutes, testing the patience of those who don’t care how impossible it all is to perform.

Metal is, of course, all about the chops. This is music that prides itself on being louder and faster and more technical than anything else. These are bands that want you to hate them, to consider them too loud, too fast. But behind the snarling attitude, these musicians worked very hard to be able to make exactly this kind of racket, and make it this well. It’s music full of pride in accomplishment – if you knew how hard this is to do, it screams, you’d be bowing to us right now.

For nearly 30 years, the best thrash metal band in the world has been Slayer. Of the Big Four American thrash acts – which also includes Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax – Slayer is the only one who never went through a Period of Great Sucking. There have been minor variations on their theme, but they have consistently done what they do – abrasive, complex, explosive music of hatred and anger, played uncommonly well.

Their 11th album, World Painted Blood, is as good a place to start as any. It is the second since the return of original drummer Dave Lombardo, a man whose calf muscles must be the size of honeydew melons. The reunion album, Christ Illusion, was a solid, uninterrupted, 39-minute onslaught of blistering riffs and unbelievably fast drumming, more of a statement of purpose than anything else. World Painted Blood is more diverse, but just as pummeling – more the sound of Slayer just getting on with being Slayer.

In its way, this one is most like 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, still on any fan’s short list of finest Slayer records. Some of it is surprisingly slow – the title track, which kicks off the record, has some dirge-like qualities that make it a strange opening shot. But with “Unit 731” and “Snuff,” all doubts are erased – this is Slayer, playing their little black hearts out. Along the way, they find some interesting detours, like the creepy midsection of “Human Strain,” and they incorporate more melody than usual. But mostly, this is four guys playing crazy-angry stuff at top speed, while Tom Araya (now 48) screams his throat raw.

Slayer’s lyrics? Well, they are what they are. If you don’t think you would be into a song called “Public Display of Dismemberment,” then this band is probably not for you. And those with strong religious beliefs probably wouldn’t come within 500 miles of a band called Slayer anyway, but I’d still warn them to stay away from “Not of This God.” (And naturally, all of Christ Illusion.) Some of this is clearly role-playing, some just morbid fascination with death and serial killers. But it comes with the territory when you’re talking about music like this.

Lyrics aside, will you like this if you don’t care how difficult it is to play? I don’t know. Slayer works for me when I am angry at the world, and want to shout myself blind. But even then, I am marveling at the stop-on-a-dime moments, the crazy time and tempo shifts, the ridiculous speed of Lombardo’s drums, and the fact that melody actually emerges from this muck once in a while. Musicians will appreciate it on that level, but hell, if you just want something to soundtrack your darkest moments, this is probably perfect.

On the other end of the spectrum is prog-rock, and for my money, you’re not going to find a more classic progressive band these days than Transatlantic. For one thing, they’re something of a supergroup – you have Neal Morse, formerly of Spock’s Beard; Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings; Pete Trewavas of Marillion; and the ubiquitous Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater. But even though those bands all take from 1970s prog in one way or another, they dilute it – Dream Theater plays prog-metal, for instance, while the Flower Kings dress it up with jazz, and Marillion has perfected an ambient pop sound.

But in Transatlantic, the foursome plays straight, classic progressive rock, influenced by Yes and Genesis and ELP and others of that ilk. Songs are written not as discrete numbers, but as flowering epics, every musician going as big as possible. There are definite melodies – sometimes several at once, interlocking – and plenty of chances for these four guys, among the best on their respective instruments, to show off what they can do.

It’s been eight years since Transatlantic last convened for sophomore effort Bridge Across Forever, and if you thought that album was excessive – four songs in 76 minutes, two of the tracks edging 30 minutes each – then you need to stay far away from their third album, The Whirlwind. The album proper is a single song, clocking in at 77:54. That’s seventy-seven minutes and fifty-four seconds.

You might be tempted to think that no song could possibly warrant 77 minutes of time, let alone the 54 seconds, but in this case, you’d be wrong. “The Whirlwind” is a carefully-composed, intricate work, one that certainly sprawls here and there, but ends up earning its extended running time. It is handily broken up into 12 “chapters” on the CD, but these are not separate songs. There are no breaks, it just motors on for nearly an hour and 18 minutes.

And I can hear you groaning now. This is why I say this music is written for musicians – the average listener doesn’t want to spend that much time digesting a single work. It’s exhausting. I can only imagine how tiring this piece must be to play – and they will play it all live. But here’s the thing about good prog like this. There are melodies galore, sections that sound like accessible pop and folk, lots of glorious harmonies, and a real sense of joy and wonder to it all.

Yes, there are solos, and yes, they are long. Stolt gets a few on guitar, Morse gets several on keyboards, and the four of them jam on lengthy instrumental passages sprinkled throughout. And the average listener, one looking for those soaring moments this music delivers so well, will likely tune out during these bits. Prog, like thrash metal, is largely about how good the players are, and how often they can prove it. If you don’t care, you won’t like these sections – you’re bound to find them self-indulgent. And I sometimes find them that way too. But sometimes I’m just too blown away by the sheer musical skill on display that I’m sucked in.

Morse wrote most of the lyrics on The Whirlwind, and if you’re familiar with the last eight years of his career, you’ll know what to expect. Morse quit Spock’s Beard in 2002 when he converted to Christianity, and his solo albums have been full-on evangelical prog-rock. The spiritual nature of “The Whirlwind” is at least a little more subdued, but it’s right up front – the final section is called “Dancing With Eternal Glory,” for example – and if you’re turned off by that, you might find the work irreparably marred. I don’t mind it, although I often wish Morse would dig a little deeper into his faith instead of giving me cookie-cutter stuff.

It’s the music that counts here, though, and if the first disc isn’t enough for you, there’s a second, another hour of songs. You get four originals, the longest lasting 9:58, and four covers, including a rip-snorting take on Genesis’ “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” and a nimble run-through of Santana’s instrumental “Soul Sacrifice.” It’s almost too much to take in, and I find myself amazed at how effortless these four guys make this masterful, complicated, very skilled music sound.

But if there’s any band lately that’s been appealing to my purely music theory side, it’s North Carolina quintet Between the Buried and Me. If I’m left flabbergasted at the metal might of Slayer and the progressive tapestry of Transatlantic, then imagine just how stunned I am at a band that seamlessly combines them both?

I know, you’re thinking Dream Theater, but you’re wrong. BTBAM is much, MUCH heavier than Dream Theater. They started as a grindcore/death metal band, terms which mean nothing to you unless you’re already a fan of the genres. Basically, they play impossibly loud and impossibly fast, with garbled, growling, atonal vocals on top. I ordinarily can’t stand this style, since it’s so monotonous – poundpoundpoundpound chugchugchug GRRRRRRRRR! Rinse, repeat. And on their early albums, BTBAM certainly fell into that trap.

But lately? Man oh man. I confess, I’ve only been listening to this band for a few months, but their recent catalog is mindblowing. I was initially intrigued by 2006’s The Anatomy Of, a covers album that found them perfectly aping Soundgarden, Queen, King Crimson, Faith No More, Depeche Mode, Counting Crows and Motley Crue. Look over that list again. Yes, these are all influences. Then, in 2007, they dropped Colors, an impossible-to-play mass of endlessly shifting metal that also included bits of jazz, polka, acoustic pop, and a thousand other things. It was so technical, so extremely difficult, that the next year, the band put out a live CD and DVD of them playing the whole thing straight through, just to prove they could.

Now here is album six, entitled The Great Misdirect, and astoundingly, BTBAM has outdone Colors. This album is sick. Insane. Inhuman. Complicated to the point of head-spinning confusion, the songs on The Great Misdirect rarely repeat, never stagnate, and expand to epic lengths – three of the six tracks break the 10-minute mark, with closer “Swim to the Moon” clocking in at 17:54. It is intense beyond belief, but there are also moments (and in the case of “Mirrors” and “Desert of Song,” entire tunes) full of great beauty.

It’s really a musician’s dream. Here’s how just one of the songs, “Fossil Genera: A Feed from Cloud Mountain,” maps out. It begins with carnival-style electric piano, swaying drunkenly in the breeze. Before long, the heavy (HEAVY) guitar comes in, playing along with the piano – the effect is very Mr. Bungle. We’re then flung headlong into seven minutes of mayhem, drums thudidng and guitars screaming in harmony as Tommy Rogers bellows in his best death-metal growl. But the music is uncommonly complicated, and as it goes on, weird keyboard noises break through, and very strange lead lines take over for brief stretches.

Finally, at about the nine-minute mark, the skies part and the acoustic guitar starts strumming. Rogers starts singing a beautiful melody while the instruments slowly build up, turning the repetitive finale into something epic. Finally, all melts away as the piano finishes things off. It’s a 12-minute journey with several stops along the way, and you feel like it’s taken you places when it’s done.

But if you’re not into musical structure, or diagramming songs, or trying to count out bizarre time signatures, all of this will mean nothing. It will sound like chaos, like random flailing that never holds together. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but by making music this complex, BTBAM have effectively limited their audience to those who can puzzle out what they’re doing. The Great Misdirect is the single most jaw-droppingly incredible musical work I’ve heard this year. It’s also one I can’t readily recommend to most people I know.

Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. The guys in BTBAM have found a way to push themselves far beyond the capabilities of most musicians I’ve heard, but the result is something insular, something that drives away more people than it attracts. I love it to death, but my reaction is geeky and cerebral, more akin to giddy disbelief than anything else. I love that this music exists, and that there are people talented enough to write and play it. But in this case, the music critic who’s never played a note in his life might have a more readily understood reaction to it.

I don’t mean to steer you away from bands like Slayer, Transatlantic and BTBAM. They are all musically tremendous, and well worth hearing. But even as I revel in the mad mathematics and finger-blister playing that goes into these records, I know they’re not for everyone. If you like them, terrific. If you don’t, I don’t blame you a bit. But there will always be a part of me that seeks out the particular kind of insanity on display here, even if I have to enjoy it alone, in my own little world. I don’t know what that says about me as a music critic, but while these records are playing, I’m just a fan, one with a seriously blown mind.

Next week, Tori Amos does Christmas, and Joy Electric does covers. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.