An Analysis of Musical Taste

Every so often I try to step back from myself and figure out why I do the things I do, and in particular why I like the things I like. My musical tastes are something I find a little intriguing as my friends and I share music, sometimes able to find almost no common ground. It’s not that I listen to the most obscure music, either. Just stylistically I prefer some things that may make some people cringe, and I don’t find a lot of appeal in things that a lot of people like. It’s not like one day I set out saying to myself, “I think I’m only going to like speed metal,” or, “I really don’t like happy-sounding keyboard-based rock.” It’s just naturally the way I’ve come to think and feel about the art form of music.

At any rate, over the past few weeks I’ve put some thought into what it is I inherently seek and prefer in music and come up with a few metrics by which I’ve noticed I measure music. Then I sort of estimated how much weight I give them when determining how much I like a particular band, album, or song. That second part is very malleable, but I attempted to give some average responses. And I know often when people talk about music genres (and in particular things they don’t like), some people feel offended and feel like they need to take up the cause for their particular favorite genre, artist, etc. So if anyone reads this, don’t get offended. That’s not my aim. I’m just trying to hash out an honest analysis of what type of things appeal to me and why, and I encourage others to do the same. Without further adieu… how I subconsciously (or I guess now somewhat-consciously) assess music.

  1. Innovation (15%) – I’ve noticed that a large part of what appeals to me is how unique and new the sound is to me. This doesn’t mean that no one has done it before, but just that it’s a new aural experience for me. For example, when I first heard Number One Gun in summer 2003, I was enamored. I’d never heard emo rock like that before, and it was exciting to hear something fresh and different. I suppose it will be more and more difficult to run into such things as I get older, as a large part of me falling in love with certain kinds of music just had to do with my first exposure to them. It was the same thing with the spacey-electronic-interlaced rock of Falling Up in 2004 and the chaotic near time-signature-less hardcore of Norma Jean a couple years later. Just because something is new to me, it doesn’t mean I will like it, but if it falls within most of the below criteria and also happens to be fresh to my hearing, it stands a good chance. Falling Up’s last couple of albums were full of sounds I’d never heard before, and that’s the primary reason I like their style. This is also why I don’t usually find myself to be a fan of older music or new music that sounds like something from bygone decades. I’ll quickly move on to my next criterion for fear of inciting the wrath of those who swear by such styles.
  2. Complexity (25%) – To go back and listen to the stuff I loved in high school, one would never guess complexity was a factor in my musical tastes. Indeed, then it was not; pop punk was my top genre for a long time. It must be a taste I’ve developed over the years, but now if music is to catch my attention, it almost has to be intricately written and produced. I’m not so much a stickler for the “you have to be able to play that song exactly live” argument anymore. I would much rather have the composer put in extra time layering and accenting in the studio to produce the perfect vision of the song and elicit the strongest emotional response than to leave things out for the sake of saying, “I won’t be able to do that live.” (To me, live performances are less about the exact sonic replication anyway, and more about the most complete artistic and heartfelt performance). In most of my favorite albums, I can listen to them dozens of times and pick out something new every time if I try to. It’s a factor that goes a long way in making music great to me – attention to depth and detail. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be central to the song, and often times it’s not. It could be the way a synth with subtle tremolo in the distant background reminds of the quivering voice of someone on the verge of tears, or something as simple as a shaker picking up the rhythm section to drive the chorus without the casual listener even noticing why that part sounds so much more driving. So… while I can enjoy the minimalistic approach, that really has to be done as an artistic statement, and I almost always prefer layers and layers of complexity in my favorite music.
  3. Lyrical content and message (30%) – This can be a sticking point in my adoption of music. It can have everything else listed here in vast amounts, but if I can’t relate to the message, I can’t form an attachment. There are topics I can more easily connect to than others, of course. I really prefer the tone of the message to be serious and of consequence as opposed to superficial and needlessly cheery (or worst of all about nothing at all). Naturally, I find deeper meaning in things that are close to my heart, so those things have an advantage in this evaluation. Eternal and spiritual matters, relational dynamics, and sometimes world issues (which really tie into spiritual matters to me) probably top the list, and also anything which can paint a powerful metaphor for one of those things. Extra bonus points if the lyricist is beautifully articulate and can always seem to select the perfect word (even if it’s something I have to look up). So… this factor can quickly eliminate a vast swath of music out there for me based on my personal tastes.
  4. Production quality (20%) – This didn’t used to bother me quite as much, but I notice it more and more lately. If I’m noticing how unbalanced the mix is or how muffled the vocals are, I’m not really listening to the song. I also tie raw talent into this category since it takes at least a certain level of talent to produce quality recordings. Again, this is something I can be loose with if it comes to an artistic statement. For example, Josh Scogin of The Chariot insisted in recording their first album live in the studio instead of piece-by-piece as most everything is done now. The sound quality most definitely suffered, but there’s a sort of coagulation and raw emotion that is only caught in that moment the band is passionately performing as one. (Of course it takes even more talent to make anything tape-worthy with five people playing at once). Anyway, top-notch production quality, tight performance, and professional mixing goes a long way in allowing the song itself to speak to me without the medium getting in the way. It’s a fine line anymore with the possibility to make almost any song digitally “perfect,” but I believe the human ear can still tell when something isn’t genuine. I still enjoy precise double bass and painstakingly-toned guitars that nestle beautifully into the mix.
  5. Meta qualities (10%) – I’d be lying to say that personal information about the artist doesn’t play into whether or not I like music. Knowing where the artist is coming from can make all the difference in interpreting the message, and knowing what they’re all about can be either much more attractive, or altogether repulsive independent of all the above factors. I won’t single out bands and call into question whether they make music just for the money or because it actually means something to them, but that feeling magnifies everything else, by my perceptions. For example, if I read a bio or artist statement of a scarcely-known act and they talk about how their music is all about seeking meaning and truth, I’d be much more lenient than perhaps another group whose “about us” section talks about how all they want is to live the “rock and roll dream” of fame and partying. It may be judgmental in some ways, but fruit doesn’t lie, and personally I can have somewhat of a hard time separating the art from the artist (at least once I know some background). It is what it is.

So after some introspection, that’s those are the filters I currently use in deciding what I like. They’ll probably change since they already have over the decade or so I’ve been finding for myself what music I like. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this subject and will probably get lots of rebuffs and critiques of my opinion either way. Just laying it out there.

Review – “With Roots Above And Branches Below” by The Devil Wears Prada

When I first picked up “Dear Love – A Beautiful Discord” from The Devil Wears Prada in summer of ’07, I was only marginally impressed. They were an up-and-coming metalcore band out of Dayton with comparisons to the rise of Norma Jean in the intensity of their live show. I bought their album on a whim one boring night as I strolled through Best Buy in the midst of my summer internship simply because I thought I had heard the name. What I wrote in my review of that album held true. It was very raw and immature sounding, but there was a glimmer of potential, and I could see some great things from them depending on how they chose to develop. TDWP’s last LP was a step in the right direction, and I think they’ve hit the sweet spot with this release. Also, before I continue, know that they (and I) have already heard all the jokes about their name and the movie. Just go with it.

I’m still not a fan of their nonsensical song titles. (There aren’t any deep meanings to titles like “Wapakalypse” or “Assistant to the Regional Manager,” so don’t hurt yourself trying to find them. I heard them state that in an interview once). I think if you’re going to create such a piece of art with a meaningful album name that relates to the topic of many of its lyrics, you should at least title songs appropriately. I’d even take the stereotypical full-sentence hardcore titles like “Sometimes It’s Our Mistakes That Make For the Greatest Ideas” over “I Hate Buffering.” That’s just my opinion. I’m a big fan of albums congealing as a whole thematically in all aspects, but by now the random titles are a sort of trademark for them, so I suppose they’ll stick with it.

What their previous efforts may have been lacking in “tightness” or melodic appeal, this album seems to make up for it. Not that I’m a fan of more traditional and repetitive song structures, but the riffs and segments judiciously repeated within some of the songs have really helped to get some of them stuck in my head. There are a few passages in particular that I’ve walked around humming, such as the opening riff to “Danger: Wildman.” Their drummer has improved immensely since “Plagues,” even if it may be more about production quality and tone than talent. Some of Jeremy’s vocals still sound auto-tuned and electronic (which bothers me), but I think that’s also a trademark of their studio work now. And for some reason I’ve noticed the bass work a lot more on this offering than their past two. Again it may be attributed to the incredible production quality and mixing, but maybe his parts are just that much better written. The electronic and synth elements come to the forefront at just the right times, which is something I hoped they would do when I first heard them. Mike’s scream usually sounds pretty strong, but there are some places where it’s a little breathy-sounding. Then again, who sits around and critiques metalcore scream styles?

Also, the lyrics are cryptic as usual. Had I not heard an interview where Mike said a lot of it is largely a critique of the Church today (as in we’ve forgotten our roots), I would have no clue what most of the songs were discussing. There’s always a fine line between being deep and understandable, I suppose. Knowing the topical content makes me a little more lenient, and I can listen along and still gain a sense of meaning from the organized chaos.

You’re probably thinking, “It sounds like you don’t like this album. Or at least you’ve given a lot of reasons you normally wouldn’t,” and you’d be partially right. There are a lot of reasons I normally wouldn’t find such an album appealing (mostly from a message standpoint), but for whatever reason, I love it. I’ve driven around multiple times already just blaring it with the windows down and reveling in the jarring breakdowns, precise double bass, and (dare I say) catchy riffs. I have this unspoken metric for determining how good a metal(core) album is. If I walk around tapping the drum beats on my chest without realizing it, it’s a winner. I’ve caught myself doing that quite a bit with this album in the couple of weeks I’ve owned it. The raw talent, incredible production quality, and inventive melodious metal style (with amazing rhythmic foundation) make it a must-own for anyone with even a slight taste for harder music. Overall, I give it a 4/5.

And here are some related links for consumption:
The album on Amazon
The Devil Wears Prada song interpretations

Credo ut intelligam

“I believe in order that I might understand.” We had a devotional speaker on Tuesday whose talk centered around this entire concept. I was familiar with the more famous “cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am” from Descartes, but I had hitherto never heard this apologetic philosophical phrase. As he unpacked his interpretation over the course of a half hour, I began to think of how this statement applies to my own faith and life. When later that day I opened up a book I was reading and was greeted with the same statement a mere few sentences from where I had left off, I decided it was worth some more in-depth consideration and writing.

The statement is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, playing off of a saying from Augustine of Hippo. I don’t have a great knowledge of theologians from long ago, save knowing that some of them were among the most brilliant minds that helped to shape Western thought. But even as the Enlightenment came and attempted to dethrone God with Science, the place of reason in faith became clouded. Understanding, as man understood it, superseded belief in anything that could not be measured. Today we find ourselves in a place where many work with fervor to prove it is scientifically possible to create “life” with the right mix of chemicals and some electricity, that there is no need for a Creator, and thus, in many minds, there must not be one. So then what? What has that shown? A lifetime’s work to prove that each human lifetime is of ultimate insignificance, a sequence of reactions eventually stilled by nature and time. I believe… in order that I may understand.

If we, as humans, truly think we’re special because we have all the mental capacity and intellectual gifts we do, that set us far above and apart from any other species to the extent that we dominate the world, then what? Somehow we must understand the place we’ve been given. Something must account for the vast experience of the universe set before us, and the complexity of our very corporeal beings. Believing is not “the easy way out,” as some may say, but the beginning of an entirely different road, especially in Post-Modern Western culture. Believing in the God of the Bible and the story woven therein calls us to make something of our existence rather than 70 years of Hedonism or expenditure of rational energy attempting to prove we came from nothing (and we are therefore free to do whatever we want). In choosing to believe in order to understand not only our place, but everything about reality as we are able to experience it, we begin to understand the significance of all things. Comprehension of natural and man-made systems all points to one place, the Creator who made them all possible. Free will can be seen as the greatest of gifts and the source of every pain inflicted on the human race. I believe in order that I may understand all things. Why the stars twinkle and how they got there. Why I ended up in Nashville. Why I was born where and when I was. How am I supposed to react to that person, and why does it matter? How does my eye work? Where in my brain cells are the memories stored? It all starts to fall into the place of this God and His story (and now His Kingdom through which he’s redeeming all He created). I believe… to understand.

I’ll close by commenting on something a brother at Ethos said tonight during one of our discussions at the park. The conversation had turned somewhat to the subject of trying to prove whether or not God does exist, and he said something to the effect of, “I serve a God that, even if I could prove He does exist, it wouldn’t change my life.” That really struck me. Honestly, I believe that to the overwhelming majority of people on this earth, scientific proof of God’s existence wouldn’t change things. Really. Just think about it. If scientists published a paper tomorrow with irrefutable evidence for a Creator who is to this day orchestrating the cosmos, would that really change humanity? I don’t think it would affect how people treat others, how they behave, or what they spend their lives pursuing. Unless God showed up in a concrete way, providing empirical confirmation, perhaps appearing as a creature the size of a mountain and physically speaking the words, “I am God” in the tongues of all men, there would still be skeptics. But would it change what people do and how people are? I have to believe that regardless of proof, people will live how they choose. Proof does not necessitate belief, a forerunner to understanding, so proof of God would not by any means imply all people would understand their value and calling and the story in which we find ourselves.

So those are my thoughts on “believing in order to understand,” and why the past couple of days have led me to evaluate the maxim “credo ut intelligam” and its application to my view of knowledge and meaning.

Review – “In Shallow Seas We Sail” by Emery

It’s been a long time since I’ve pre-ordered an album. I’ve noticed lately that retailers carry almost no CDs these days, and I understand it’s because of the trend toward iTunes, but I just can’t justify paying full price for music that’s not full quality. But that’s another discussion. At any rate, I pre-ordered “In Shallow Seas We Sail” by Emery. Emery’s first two albums were some of my favorite ever, and their 2004 release, “The Weak’s End,” was a particularly amazing work of art. They took some chances with a different creative direction for “I Am Only a Man,” their last full-length, and I wasn’t a fan. When I heard some of the tunes on this forthcoming release, however, I could tell they had gotten back to their roots. Who can say exactly why they made the move back to their screamo foundation? No matter the reason, I’m glad to see them back atop their game.

This release is not for the faint of heart or anyone who can’t appreciate the artistic use of screaming, or for anyone who doesn’t like dynamic shifts on the order of 3-4 per song. There are quite a bit more screaming breakdowns with dissonant wreckage as the soundscape than any of their previous releases, but seemingly just as many synth-laced quiet interludes. Beautiful and poignant harmonies often carry the listener up to a ferocious breakdown, or perhaps a furious dual-vocal exchange (as in the end of “Cutthroat Collapse.”) I never get tired of complexity. To me, it’s a wonderful attribute for any music to have, giving staying power. I’ve listened to “Shallow Seas” about three times now, and every time I notice something new in almost every song. Whether it’s the complimentary piano part leading to the bridge in “Butcher’s Mouth,” or the layered vocals in “Piggy Bank Lies,” Emery are certainly good studio musicians with attention to detail. Some of it is reminiscent of “The Weak’s End,” but the guitar work doesn’t seem to be as intricate as that release (which makes sense since they since lost a bassist and now share responsibilities for that instrument). As always, the tag team of Toby and Devin on vocals both keeps things interesting and, at times, lends to the storytelling perspective. Dave even throws in some foundational double bass in the verse of “Butcher’s Mouth,” which is just the kind of innovation I love.

Topically, the album deals very much with heartbreak, relationships, and the messes that can come of them. That seems to be something I can always appreciate, even if I’m not in the midst of it. There are lots of concrete references to deception and broken promises, as well as poetic references such as “Red lights fading out/ As you drive back to your house,” painting the picture of the protagonist watching his former love drive away. It’s what Emery does best, and this album showcases their ability to capture such the gamut of emotions. “Ships don’t sink if they have wind in their sails/ But if the wind fails is there hope?”

Overall, I give it 3.5 out of 5. At times the songs can seem to harp on the same subject even a little too much for me, and two of the 13 tracks were from their previous EP, but still there are those moments that inspire me like few albums have for awhile. Furthermore, sometimes I think God drops music in front of me at just the right time. I don’t want to stretch it too far, but I’ve been needing some music like this lately for myriad reasons – processing the past and garnering inspiration, among other things. Similarly to how “Cosmos” by The Send seemed to come at just the right time, this release has spoken to me. While understanding it probably only appeals to a small demographic, I wholeheartedly recommend “In Shallow Seas We Sail,” and it will find a place somewhere in my top 20 or so albums for awhile.