Turn, and face the strange (ch-ch-changes!)
-David Bowie, Changes
The Contortionist, one of my favorite bands, released a new album last week: Clairvoyant. It’s a moderately good album at first listen, but it’s been steadily growing on me with more listens (as I figured/hoped it would). The standout song is entitled “Return To Earth” and is just a crazy good jam.
The song has a lot to recommend it, including this tastefully shot/edited music video. The vocals are pure and nuanced, the mixing of the instruments is clean, and the progression of the song’s complexity as it advances helps it grow into a super impactful, anxiety-inducing climax. Even as the song maintains hopeful themes, undertones of paranoia and fear bleed through to keep it grounded solidly in the existential atmosphere The Contortionist has been cultivating during their career.
That being said — Clairvoyant is a huge departure from everything they’ve made previously. The Contortionist originated as an extreme death metal band, almost entirely with harsh vocals. For sampling pleasure, I present their 2009 EP Apparition.
If you aren’t into this sort of music, the disparity will be evident in the first minute and you need not subject yourself further. If you ARE into this sort of thing — rock on, my dear fellow.
Regardless, when the band went and dropped Clairvoyant, the reaction from the fanbase was mixed, as might be expected. People who fell in love with old-school Contortionist were outraged that there is no screaming or particularly brutal riffs. People who discovered them around the Language-era (their previous, more mellow album) were excited they’ve continued moving in this direction with their music. And people like me, who like both genres, were maybe a little bummed about the pacific vibes, but not unduly so. And like I said, it’s been growing on me steadily with each new listen.
The point here is that ostensibly, the members of The Contortionist want to make this mellow psychedelic prog-rock now and aren’t interested in doing extreme deathcore stuff anymore, and that’s okay. It’s their prerogative; they’re the ones making the music. And too often I find myself (or see others on the internet) bitching about changes when maybe I/we should be trying to appreciate the New Thing, whatever it is, as the fruit of evolution.
Take Childish Gambino, the rap alter-ego of Donald Glover. I will argue passionately that Because The Internet is one of the best rap albums ever recorded, and I will argue just as passionately that Awaken, My Love doesn’t have NEARLY the same impact or depth to it. Is it because he decided to drop rapping and stick to R&B vocals for the whole album? Dunno. It could just be that I’m not nearly as into R&B as I am moody existential rap (fact). Is he diminished as an artist just because I, Michael, didn’t care for it as much? Of course not.
To say that change is an inevitable part of life is beyond stale, yet here I am writing it and reflecting on it heavily. My life has changed somewhat abruptly in the past several months, and I’m left at a bizarre crossroads much like the members of The Contortionist. Moving to Los Angeles has been both a blessing and a curse, and I’m still not sure which side of the fence I’m on.
On one hand, I’ve never been more creatively prolific. My screenwriting has evolved significantly both in quality and amount, my skills at collaboration have soared, and throwing myself headfirst into the world has been exhilarating in a very terrifying sort of way. On the other hand, my interior monologue generally rebounds to thoughts of What the fuck am I doing? on five-minute intervals. Employment is hard to find. My girlfriend, extended family, and many of my other friends are three timezones away. Money dwindles; panic ensues.
If my life at this stage was album, following the smash hit that was The College Years, it’s hard to know what the fan reaction would be:
“Experimental, but maybe not in a good way” notes one listener. “I appreciate why the band moved in this direction, but I’m not sold on the finished product.”
Which is basically where I’m at when I try and objectively introspect. Maybe it’s the necessary stage of development. Or maybe I’m just throwing myself in the shitter and begging someone to just flush already. Hard to say. This isn’t to paint my life as radically different: there are plenty of constants. I haven’t cut my hair, which at this point is more symbolic for me than aesthetic. I’m still surrounded by awesome friends, both old and new, which makes the whole ordeal much more bearable. And let’s face it: I’m still me.
But I’m also changing — the dreaded trope. I’m being forced by necessity to manage my finances more tightly — which while terrifying is also invaluable life experience. I’ve been eating more healthily, which I assume is somehow California’s fault. I finally caved and took the LinkedIn Premium free trial they’ve been pestering me about since I made the account in high school. All in all, pretty radical shit.
I wish I had some sort of grand answer to what the hell is going on right now, some sort of resolution to end this post on an uplifting note. I don’t, really. Whatever clarity I had hoped to gain by typing it all out and mulling it over never materialized, and I’m not terribly surprised. But I guess at the end of the day, the change is coming regardless, right? The other option is stagnancy and stagnancy is practically the ultimate enemy. Inertia almost never carries a positive connotation.
Take Breaking Benjamin, one of my favorite middle-school alt rock bands. They haven’t changed their sound in any significant way since their 2004 album We Are Not Alone. To their credit, their albums have all features catchy songs and the angsty power chords that made it so emotive back during puberty. But to quote selections from the Wikipedia entry on the band’s musical style:
Breaking Benjamin’s musical style…has commonly been noted for its consistency. Corey Apar felt that “Breaking Benjamin are nothing if not consistent”, and Alex Young felt that “Breaking Benjamin is one of the few modern rock bands on the radio that, if you have heard any song in its catalog prior, could be immediately recognized.” Despite a complete lineup change prior to the release of Dark Before Dawn, …”Breaking Benjamin hardly deviates from the hooky jams that were present on Dear Agony.”
That is NOT how I would want to be described. If I ever get so entrenched in anything that I could be accurately described as “hardly deviating”, I’ve gone seriously off-track. So until change well and truly fucks me over, I’m gonna keep rolling with it. Keep writing. Keep working. Keep trying to maintain maximum positivity and efficiency.
Will the die-hard fans of the old stuff be appeased? Maybe not. But maybe they (and I) can start to see the good of this new chapter, if we give it enough time and enough listens. Maybe it will start to grow on us, and eventually we’ll be bitching about the New Thing and why it isn’t more like The Year After College.