Why is metalcore so terrible, exactly?
I’ve isolated a great deal of metal fans with that opening sentence, but the current state of affairs in the genre is such that a pause for evaluation is necessary. Paradigm shifts within certain sub-genres of metal—black metal being the most obvious example—have brought about so many frenzied discussions that in our highfalutin theorizing (see: Liturgy) fans of popular subgenres like metalcore have begun to feel oddly threatened by the melding and molding that, to many, has made metal better. A microcosm of this conflict can be seen in a humorous way via the MSN Metal website, where PopMatters contributing editor Adrien Begrand writes. On the comment section for his best-of-the-year roundup, one particularly irate voice chimed:
WOW this is a terrible list. Not just a Complete lack of power metal but metalcore and deathcore. death to hipster metal! Luckily the whole world knows this isn’t what represents metal outside the blogosphere. There’s a reason this crap doesn’t sell. Well mr blogger what represents the best metal is WHAT SELLS.
Pushing aside the egregious fallacy driving his anger (“What sells = What’s good”), his words highlight something important. On paper, the union of metal and hardcore doesn’t necessarily lend itself to generic, over-producedness; it just seems to happen that way. Metalcore bands around the world (and by world I mean mostly the United States) continue to give their fans the things they like the most: contrasted clean and growled vocals, imposing band names (see: Killswitch Engage), and, of course, a breakdown in (most) every song. Everyone has their own taste, and it’s of course not wrong to like metalcore. But amongst the major metal critics, the genre is seen as lacking innovation, or if you’re lazy about it, “too mainstream”.
In some ways they’re right; if any variant of metal has been “Christianised”, metalcore would be it; big names like Demon Hunter, The Devil Wears Prada, and Underoath all openly affiliate with that religious label. Much like metalcore, Christian music doesn’t have to be bad; it just kind of happens that it is. (Demon Hunter, for instance, began promisingly, but ever since 2005’s The Triptych their sonic has become increasingly monochromatic.) Christian music’s tendency to not push too many dangerous buttons has now bled into metalcore, resulting in albums that satisfy for a minute but not much longer. Conversely, fans of metalcore, such as the commenter quoted above, see the critics who back the most obscure or genre-melding metal bands as near betrayers of the craft, capitulating to the weirdest possible excesses. One of the critical darlings of 2012 is Panopticon’s Kentucky, a daring merger of black metal and Americana. An album like that doesn’t comfortably fit on the shelf between As Daylight Dies and They’re Only Chasing Safety.
Which now brings us to Get What You Give, the third outing by The Ghost Inside, their first for Epitaph label. If you judge an album based solely on how well executed the various elements are, then this is pretty good. Some of the riffs are pretty punchy, there’s a good amount of breakdowns, and Jonathan Vigil’s vocals do exactly what they’re supposed to do. But by the conclusion of “Engine 45”, the third track, you can’t help but feel like there’s something missing in all this. When Vigil screams, “All my life I’ve been waiting for something / That never came”, it’s pretty easy to relate to him, although not for the reason he wants. You may not have waited all your life for metalcore to be something greater than it is, but like many who wish the genre didn’t have to fall prey to commercial trappings, you’ve likely been hoping for awhile. The Ghost Inside do little to variate on the established metalcore sonic, even though they play that sonic well.
There are some things that differentiate The Ghost Inside from other groups of their ilk. Lyrically, they’re very positive and optimistic, an odd trait for a band aiming for hardcore as much as they are. This isn’t to say metal can’t be life-affirming or hopeful; even Liturgy’s rootings in black metal didn’t hold back Hunter Hunt-Hendrix from thinking he could rise above banal nihilism. From that line of thought arose the “negation of a negation” trope, the key force behind his Transcendental Black Metal treatise. That sort of hope, however, has a sophistication and nuance to it that isn’t like, say, Devin Townsend’s entertainingly blunt take on happy metal. When The Ghost Inside try to be optimistic, it comes off more like metal vis a vis cheesy inspirational music, i.e. the song you’re likely to hear backing a military recruitment video. The most obvious pieces of evidence are the frequent reliance on cliché (“It’s so hard for me to see so light up the end of that tunnel”), clunky wording (“My youth is getting older”), or stuff straight-ripped from a “Actualize Your Internal Self” seminar (‘I’m alive!’ Just make that choice and draw that line tonight / Tonight you got to test the limits and tell yourself / ‘I’m alive, and I’m not going anywhere!’”). On one hand it’s nice to see a metal band aim for positivity instead of wallowing in the darkness you’d expect; it’s just a shame they devolve so quickly into the superficial.
This now brings us back to the initial question I posed. All of the historical analysis in this review is but to suggest that The Ghost Inside are on the wrong side of history as far as metalcore is concerned. Had this not been released after years of uninspired, flat records in the genre, Get What You Give could have benefited from a friendlier context. As it stands, it fits all too neatly into the “popular metalcore/unpopular ‘hipster’ metal” bifurcation. The forces that have made metalcore what is now are many, too many to document in a single review. In a way it’s a marvel; with metal branching off into so many different musical scenes, how is it that the most popular genre has managed to remain utterly stagnant? A cynic might say that’s the nature of mainstream music, and that it’ll be awhile before the likes of The Ghost Inside rise above their style’s pratfalls. I’d like to hope for the better, but all I’m left with is what I have now, and not even Vigil’s impassioned attempts to inspire give me a lot to work with.