I’m many things, but one thing I’ve never been is cool. There are many reasons for this – crap hair, being overweight, dandruff, a tendency to blush furiously when talking to people, a voice I hate listening to (which, inexplicably, seems to have gained a cult following thanks to the SquadCast) and, of course, relentless self-deprecation.
This lack of coolness was particularly apparent during my teenage years. These days I like to think I have my own identity – nerd chic or whatever stupid post-modern label you want to apply to it – and I’m quite happy with this. During adolescence, though, it’s easy to be jealous of “the cool kids” and for many nerds such as myself, the way to get in on some of that action was to get into the same music that they liked. At least then you’d have something to talk about, and you’d feel justified sitting in on them in the Music department at lunchtime, trying their best not to crucify their favourite song and, inevitably, failing.
I didn’t quite manage this perfectly, however. Kids were into Blur and Oasis when I was at school, so the first album I ever bought for myself was Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Fine. A good choice. Unfortunately, I chose the day before (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? came out to purchase it, so was thus branded an idiot.
Over time, I got a little better, picking up some other albums that other people considered to be “classics” for various reasons, and more than a few stinkers as well – all of which I have, and intend to hold onto with no shame as a reminder of my past. I never really strayed that far out of the cultural comfort zone of local commercial radio and what I read in magazines, though.
As time went on, I got older and I apparently at some point signed that non-negotiable contract that means once you’re over the age of 25 you must immediately start hating all contemporary popular music. (To be fair, contemporary popular music is shit.) As such, I kind of stopped paying that much attention to a lot of music for a while, instead sticking to things that I’d liked for years, or more “niche” interests such as countless remixes, reorchestrations and even a spectacular metal reinterpretation of the Final Fantasy soundtracks. During my training as a teacher, my buddy Owen introduced me to 80s and early 90s metal, which I enjoyed greatly but didn’t explore in any depth. In the meantime, the charts slowly filled up with 50 Cent and crap like the track in the link posted above, and television began search after search for “the next big star”, with Popstars, Pop Idol, The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and all manner of other “talent” shows which proved again and again that the mainstream popular music industry at large wasn’t interested in talent, just someone who “looked right” and was “marketable”.
Fast forward a few years – to now, in fact. I picked up Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band 2 the other week, and between them those two games have reignited an interest in exploring music. Not middle-of-the-road chart music because that’s still shit. (I know I posted that already. But it is shit.) No, I’m talking music where the artists actually play their instruments and in many cases compose their own songs too.
It may sound trite to quote Guitar Hero and Rock Band as influences on exploring music, but it’s true in my case. Speaking as an actual musician (albeit not a guitarist, vocalist or particularly gifted singer), I can say that both games encourage analytical listening of the music you’re playing, even if the note charts for you to play on your plastic instruments are sometimes a little questionable (but that’s a discussion for another day). As such, it quickly becomes apparent which ones are the genuinely-well composed tracks and which ones are masking their compositional deficiencies behind lots of noise. For the most part, there’s a clear divide between “classic rock” of the 70s and 80s and more recent tracks, with many earlier tracks displaying much more in the way of virtuosity (and stamina), particularly on the part of the guitarists and drummers – but there are some notable exceptions, two of which I thought I’d mention particularly, as the individual tracks in Rock Band actually convinced me to explore these artists further and purchase more of their music.
First up is Coheed and Cambria, which I know RocGaude is a fan of. Coheed and Cambria are prog-rock taken to the extreme, with spectacularly lengthy album titles (the one I purchased is called Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness) and even a companion series of graphic novels to flesh out the story of the characters in the songs. But there’s something about the songs, particularly Welcome Home, the track from Rock Band, that “got” me. Now that I’ve mentioned this, Coheed and Cambria fans amongst my circle of friends have started coming out of the closet too. I’d never heard of them prior to a couple of weeks ago – now it seems that appreciation for their work is more widespread than I thought.
Next up is Dream Theater, their track Panic Attack representing one of the most difficult tracks in Rock Band 2, thanks to some tricky riffs and the fact that it jumps around from 5/4 to triplet rhythms at irregular intervals, meaning that everyone in the band has to keep on their toes. This piece was so unashamedly dramatic that it immediately appealed to me, with the concept of the piece also holding a degree of personal resonance for me. As a result, I decided to check out the album it was from, Octavarium. I wasn’t disappointed – from the opening track through a hugely diverse range of styles paying homage to U2 and Muse among other things, and finishing with a twenty-minute long finale, I really enjoyed the album. It’s the first album I actually decided to sit and listen to – as in, headphones on, lights off, concentrate on the music and nothing else – for a very long time. Not working with music on, not blogging, not browsing the Internet, not having the music on in the background – just focusing on the music exclusively. And I had a great experience with the album.
My point? Yes, there is one, however flimsy it might be. I have no idea if it’s cool to like Coheed and Cambria, or Dream Theater, but I am happy to stand up and be counted as someone who likes them both. I’m sure I will discover more great new music as time goes on, from Rock Band, from the live gigs I’ve been to recently and via services like last.fm.
In short, anywhere but from BBC Radio 1.
And that song is shit.