Well, I guess it’s time for THAT post, right? I promised to explain how newness is not a thing that my model, as described and explained up to this point, excludes or diminishes. This will be a long one, so I’ll put in headings for easier orientation.
The krux of it all
First of all, why should that even be a problem? To be honest, it isn’t really one for me but that has a reason that may be much more specific to my understanding of newness than I usually realise and that, in turn, creates room for explanation. I first came to that realisation, really, when someone wrote a certain comment under one of my music reviews on German Amazon. I had reviewed the album “M.A.N.” by the same band and tried to describe their sound more concretely by saying that they had found a niche between Meshuggah and Static-X with said album. The commenter didn’t really like that, because for him comparisons like that, it seems, made bands look like epigones, instead of being their own, so to say.
That was the first time I realised that, for some people, describing a bands sound by reference to other bands is something problematic because they see it as diminishing the individual creativity and uniqueness of that band. And it is obvious that I’m probably running into similar problems with my model, because of the very central role of the stylistic triangle. The stylistic triangle serves both as a basic outline for the dominant stylistic choices of Modern Metal bands and as a model of their historic ancestory. Some kind of core DNA of Modern Metal. And that stylistic triangle basically consists of stylistic choices of three hugely well known bands. It can be easily seen how that could evoke a sense of my model relativising Modern metal bands to their ancestory and, in the process, relativising away their uniqueness, and, because a historic dimension is involved, their newness.
Uniqueness and newness
But neither is that what I want, nor is that implied in my model. It all depends on what you think uniqueness and newness are. I will now try to explain what I think they are.
What is the main idea, the catchphrase-able core concept? My view of newness is closely bound to recombination, instead of being bound to pure uniqueness. Of course, uniqueness and newness are different things, but I think they have strong overlaps. Uniqueness has no necessary historic dimension but it is the stronger concept. For something to be unique, it has to be strongly different from certain other things. For something to be new, it has to be sufficiently different from things that came before. Already with uniqueness we see some interesting things. Most importantly: The question of what that unique thing should be different from. We need a reference class. A unique band for example is unique by being very very different from other bands. But that implies that there’s also similarities, because if there weren’t, we couldn’t qualify that band as a unique band but just as something plainly different, something alien. Both unique thing and reference-things have to be bands, they both have to, for example, create something we recognise as music, etc.. This is a very common way of seeing things, actually, not just some high ivory tower understanding. For example, we view every individual human as unique. But at the same time, we view every individual human being as a part of humanity because all of them share certain defining properties. That’s what makes a species.
So something can be unique, even if it shares many properties with other similar things. Likewise, something can be new, even if it consists of many elements of things that came before. But how is that even possible? It is a much taller order than what I described for uniqueness, it seems. There, we just needed a few properties in the thing unique that differentiate it from similar things in some major way. But how can something be new if it consists of old things?
Newness and absolute newness… and Science Fiction
That is not as outlandish an idea as it may seem. Let’s look at us humans again. Even the properties that make us unique, the ones that are hugely different to the ones of others, are never entirely new. They are not really properties no one ever had before. By DNA-recombination, they are properties that are recombinations of properties of our ancestors. We have to discriminate between two ideas, I think: The idea of absolute newness and the idea of newness as we commonly know it. Something absolutely new would be something that we have truly never seen before, something that isn’t even consisting of one element of an old thing. Every element of it and the thing that those elements form, are unknown. Like a truly alien lifeform. The newness we encounter every day is more likely to be defined like this: New things are recombinations of old things (or elements of them) that differ from those old things in some significant way.
Again, this difference of ideas of newness is not something I just constructed on a whim, and that common idea of newness is, in fact, something we employ every day. You can already see it hinted at in how we understand ourselves as unqiue and every human being that is born as something new. But it even runs deeper, it is entrenched in our culture in some major ways. One of the areas where it can be seen best is Science Fiction. A broad category of works of art that try to create worlds that lie in the future or somewhere very far away from earth (if you want to count those kinds of Science Fiction in). As such, SciFi always has one very central problem that is one of its major hooks at the same time: It tries to depict things we don’t already know because they, in the classical sense, lie in the future. They have not already happened. It is very interesting that to achieve this, SciFi mostly recombines things we know from our world in a way that makes them very different from what we know. That’s also why SciFi always, consciously or unconsciously, works as a reflection on our current state of affairs, by the way. I think everyone can think some instance of what I mean here. It probably becomes very apparent in the depiction of alien lifeforms. Aliens are almost always composed of elements of animals we know from earth, in ways that makes them look twistedly different. THE Alien, for example, is something like a combination of snake, scorpion and chamaeleon. Still, it looks so different from those animals that it may even evoke our instinctual fear of the unknown, just by how it looks.
Only seldomly does SciFi try to depict something that is truly and purely new, purely alien. One of the masters of describing the undescribable is Stanislaw Lem. He employs various techniques to achieve that, for example, how can be seen in his novel “Solaris”, heavy use of technical mathematical terms. But even then, if you’re a physician or mathematician and understand all those terms, chances are those descriptions lose much of their alienness. In “Golem XIV”, the un-graspable nature of a lecturing super computer is depicted by leaping, sometimes eclectic and erratic trains of thought or concepts of certain things like evolution that are wholy contrary to what we normaly think them to be. But in the end, if you look closely and/or have some training in Philosophy and knowledge about those things, you will realise that behind this seeming alien-ness lie perfectly rational human, if very interesting, trains of thought and some neat literary and rethoric tricks.
Even there it becomes very obvious that recombining known elements in certain ways can lead to things that are unique, and significantly different from things we know, challenging us, evoking unanticipated thoughts.
The newness of Modern Metal
And, bringing it back full circle, this also applies to my model of Modern Metal. It is firmly based on the common understanding of newness described above. Nothing we commonly see or know, nothing we are actually able to describe in terms that are known to us, is absolutely new. All those things consist of old things, things we already know and can describe. But that does not have to mean they are like the old things. Because recombining old things can create things that are very significantly different from those old things. Sybreeds sound, for example, clearly consists of many stylistic elements that can be found in Fear Factorys, SYLs or Meshuggahs work, plus their Black Metal roots, plus many elements that come from other ancestory like Killing Joke, Depeche Mode, etc.. But, especially in their later career, Sybreed do not sound like one of those bands ever did, or just like an eclectic string of hommages. Their sound is new. Combining Pop appeal directly with cold synths and Industrial ambiance and riffing, amped up by off-beat and polyrhythmic riffing. Sounding like the hydraulic workings of industrial machinery mixing with robotic voices of dust-smeared user interfaces with the neon sparkly sound of wall-screen advertisements for the latest Synth Pop starlet bleeding in from the hums of the distant city.
"The sky above the city was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel", I know, my descripition is becoming a bit too literary to count as an analysis any more. But describing Sybreeds sound a bit more picturesque sure helps bring the point across in a more immediate way. Be it the odd alien movements of Meshuggahs riffing, SYLs Industrial onslaught or Fear Factorys famous adaptions of the Terminator-universe in the medium of music, they all shared a certain connection to Cyberpunk atmosphere and motives. But Sybreed are a full embodiment of Cyberpunk in all its aspects like none of the three pillars were. Speaking in literature references and pictures, at least.
And I think similar things can be said about every one of my significant four and, consequently about bands that sound similar to them. Textures sound hugely different from SYL and Meshuggah. Even Mnemic, taking elements from Fear Factory and Meshuggah left and right, had a sound of their very own, alerady early in their career.
None of the core lements of those bands may ever have been absolutely new, nor may be their sound. But recombining those elements, they still created something distinctly new. Because two known elements combined can lead to a thing so different from every single of those two things that it can only be described as new. All of them share a huge deal of properties with Fear Factory, SYL and Meshuggah, yet none of them are epigones.