On the tangled ball of music that is rock

January 24, 2021 by Lucian Mogosanu

First off, the reader would be wise to ask him or herself the question: "why would I listen to this particular dude speak about music, rock in particular?" To address this: I've been imbibed in this particular "genre" of music for the past two decades and I've also seriously practiced playing it for about seven years or so. A lot of my thoughts on the subject are written down on the old blog; and a huge portion is completely absent from the public sphere, a fact which I've slowly started to overcome. And on this note...

Naturally, we shall begin with the tangled ball. The quotes that I put around this rock "genre" weren't accidental, nor were they arbitrary: postmodern music, in all its destructuring, has made classification not only impractical, but counter-productive, in a sense: the blending of themes and musical colours has driven music to such a level of variety, and in rarer cases of refinement, that it's impossible to place a song in a definite frame anymore1. At some level, this "rock" thing that has been on people's lips for so many decades, this giant, it exists, yet it resists definition!

So as far as I can see, this common term of "rock music" can only be defined through emerging from the enormous pile of particular examples, currents, and perhaps most importantly, through the currents that have been pushing through the decades, resisting the fashions du jour, and perhaps incorporating la crème de la crème from each, in its process of transformation. Of course, all of this is assuming that this phenomenon we speak of hasn't meanwhile disintegrated into background noise. But before it disintegrated, it must have started at a particular point in time, namely the period following immediately the Second World War, and somewhere, namely in the West... some might say England, but let's dig deeper, actually.

The roots of rock cover very little ground in the realm of classical Western tradition, as they lie mostly in the slums and fields across the ocean, in the bars where the former slaves of North America went about their daily lives, where they sang, where they jizzed, where they jazzed -- I don't think it'd be unfair to say that big band jazz and early fusion did way more to preserve Western tradition than "rock", if only this "fusion" didn't blend into rock itself! But getting back to the days of early jazz and blues, of the hopeful2 songs of Louis Armstrong, it is when this slummy blues went electric and when white people started borrowing its elements that it became "rock'n'roll", first timidly, through Elvis et al., then absolutely gushingly through The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, those who took this "blues"/"rock" thing and put it on the pedestal of high art, sprinkling upon it the spices of the East -- which is why the so-called "progressive" rock, the "rock which dared to run back and forth within this space of music", has its roots in the very beginning of rock itself.

Then, not long after its seeds were placed and the first plant grew, this rock phenomenon started to unfurl into a field of various colours; a large part of it went back towards the masses, intermingling with most of what is known today as "pop music", but mostly, being beaten to a pulp by "rhythm, blues, soul and rap" on that battleground. Moving on from this rabbit hole, along with pop also arised "heavy metal", "art rock", "experimental rock", with the entire array of sub-currents that they brought along, each with its own lifetime and days of glory. In all these forms of expression, some delicate, others powerful, some absolutely mind-boggling, some constantly intermingled with pop (e.g. Bowie, Jackson, or our own generation's Steven Wilson), others less concerned with the tastes of the masses, but which nevertheless made breakthroughs in the market. Here we have the examples of King Crimson, and of Tool; of Metallica, and of Dream Theater; of Emerson Lake and Palmer and of Änglagård; of Pink Floyd; of surfaces and depths, so many rhythms shaping the lives of those who listen to them. Somehow, although the spirit of rock, if there ever was one, is long dead and buried, there is something pushing through the generations, from Mozart to present day.

I haven't been closely in touch with this world in the past few years. I have a few people that I'm following in the field, people with whom I have more or less in common, generally speaking, and with whom I diverge and converge on several roads; people much wealthier than I, but still, just people. And among what these people produce, I observe Steven's latest; and I also see Daniel's latest3 and... take these guys: oh, how young they sounded just yesterday! there is a certain depth in that music of the tumultous '70s, which these kids have taken and evolved into a mature piece of art rock, with all the '80s sounds oozing out of it. This rock of the 2020s is an old rock, one lacking much of the energy of the '70s, and of the rebeliousness of the following decades. It's a tired rock -- even Mikael isn't doing metals anymore -- sometimes a brutally barbaric one, if we're to take those other Swedes, and one can't but keep wondering whether or not this decade brings with it "rock"'s last gasps. Perhaps my senses and sensibilities have roughened and these examples that I label "rock" have in fact nothing to do with "rock" at all. I'm hearing it, for one; I'm hearing more of Beatles' harmony and The Floyd's "quiet desperation" in Steven than I am in most; and while I do admire Arjen for creating mammoth-works with so few resources, and bringing such talented people together, I think his creative work has hit somewhat of an impasse? I've followed his recent dive into the Ayreon universe and I've listened to it with pleasure, but I haven't picked it up the second time. There is a certain romanticism to it, maybe specific to the "power metal" genre, that is inadequate to this Age of Darkness which has just begun; yes, Arjen, take Daniel's grim, much more adequate, or take your own, or your Futurama-satire even, all these are much more consistent with the reality of this short period which we call "our lifetime".

But maybe, just maybe, among Altın Gün, Steven Wilson, Pain of Salvation and others like them, among these maybe there's to be found a new energy, the seeds of new life -- and not just Pink Beetles in a Purple Zeppelin, as Arjen correctly intuits, but the seeds of actual meaning. It will be difficult for rock, as I know it, to pull through this, and it might die as a result -- take the beautiful example of the latest LTE piece; it certainly takes you places, but unfortunately those are places I've visited so many times before, and these transparent (and intentional!) reruns are getting tiresome. Notice the almost suspect absence of American Greats at this table of "rock music": has the great US and A succumbed to the level of manele?

Just a couple of hours ago, I was sitting on the couch, listening to Karajan and Richter doing Tchaikovsky's first piano Concerto, on a Russian vinyl from God-knows-when, but which nevertheless sounds impeccably. The first movement, in its journey, took me to places and times of old, during the time of the Russian romantics, with all their struggles and miseries, and with their burning eagerness to experiment. So... how can a bunch of Turks, Austrians and Russians, taken separately or in whatever other combination you'd like -- how can they take me places, while John, Mike and Arjen can't?

I can't speak ill of John or Arjen; I do not doubt that much of today's "music" belongs to generative algorithms, whether applied by automation or humans. I also firmly believe that Music, as a phenomenon, is distinct from and comes before its representations; and while rough, discretizing digital experiences may appeal to the orc4 ear, they have nothing in common with the organic "unconscious counting" that we call Music. By 252525, if not by 2525, perhaps we'll know whether rock, that lively thing which dominated people's ears during the latter half of the twentieth century, will have found for itself any place in the foundations of music.

  1. This placing of songs in frames is a whole separate discussion, which this page lacks the space to maintain. But just to skim the surface, let's go back to that framing discussion, and ask yourselves: what frame am I in when I listen to some song? What ties Lucian, a kid in the suburbs of Bucharest in the early 2000s, to Ozzy, a kid in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1960s? These are, I posit, Questions That Matter. 

  2. And in the end so Fallout-ian. 

  3. Oh, believe you hipster me, this sounds great on a vinyl! 

  4. Oh, I am mean? Now, you just wait a second there; let's talk a bit about our Lord and Savior, auto-tune. How do you think that has shaped your ear? And most strikingly, in what other ways do you expect your ear will be violated in the near future?

    No, ye rappers, you have not practiced what you preached. You have Eminem, lonely at the top, and Snoop, forever smoked; and what else? Noticed Tupac in rotation lately? NWA? What happened to those guys? And let us not elide this question: has "your" rap regrouped as a sub-genre under the more generic American manele? 

Filed under: note to the alien anthropologist.
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2 Responses to “On the tangled ball of music that is rock”

  1. #1:
    spyked says:

    While we're here, I must not forget to mention one other thing which I deeply dislike about rock music, namely that it has fallen under the trap of the same mockery-of-sound as its brother, pop, on the other hand; and that the same sound consistently lacks any qualities worth the mention in actual performances. And let us be clear -- no one may mention Pink Floyd. They are the exception among so many sound failures, both obvious and subtle, during "rock" and "metal" concerts -- whatever "rock" may have gained by its blasting volume, it has surely lost the appeal to the ear's sensibilities. No amount of fucking with dynamics and with textures is able to replace that, no synth will sound remotely organic in lack of a Roger Waters to fiddle with it to the point of obsession.

    Let us leave the dead in their peace. What concert have you been to lately, which sounded great? 'cause my last one wasn't really rock, if you know what I mean.

  2. #2:
    spyked says:

    It appears that Steven agrees with me... sorta.

    I, on the other hand, do not quite agree with him. It takes way more work than putting some guitars through a MIDI synth to evolve rock musically.

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