Sunday, November 20, 2011
In praise of Obituary: Forgoing the space race
"We did the same thing on the new album [as] we normally do. We don't try too hard. We stick to what we are good at. We know that Obituary has a sound and a style, and we want to preserve that, so when the fans buy these albums, they know that they're getting a good Obituary album."—Obituary drummer Donald Tardy, 2010 interview with Art ’N’ Roll WebZine
I've been a fan of the Florida death-metal band Obituary for something like 20 years. A friend passed me 1992's The End Complete at school, and I was immediately sucked into its slow, tortured soundworld. I stuck around for 1994's World Demise—I distinctly remember participating in an Obituary rite of passage around this time: developing my own comical-yet-reverent impression of frontman John Tardy's soul-vomit growl—but I got off the train after that.
As a young listener, I regarded Obituary—along with bands like Deicide and Cannibal Corpse—as part of my death-metal phase: in other words, great at what they did but not really a band you could grow up with. They'd always be there if I needed a little shot of nostalgia, but I didn't think of them the way I regarded, say, Morbid Angel, i.e., as a band I could count on to evolve, to present me with new information over time, and/or to compose material that was so strong and compelling that it transcended the genre entirely.
Over the past few weeks, in advance of last night's Obituary show at Santos Party House, I made a point of catching up on all the Obituary full-lengths I missed, i.e., 1997's Back from the Dead through 2009's Darkest Day, and found that I wasn't necessarily amiss in letting my real-time fandom of the band lapse. It was almost shocking to me how little their sound had progressed. If you'd played me Darkest Day blind, I'd have had a hard time dating it as a post–World Demise release. Still the same mix of excruciating doom-groove passages and bottom-heavy, hardcore-infused thrash (still no blastbeats, a key distinguishing feature of this band); still the same ghastly John Tardy vocals. Obituary was, to borrow the title of their 2005 comeback record (the band was dormant between Back from the Dead and that release), frozen in time. (To be fair, guitarist Ralph Santolla's florid, virtuoso leads, heard on Darkest Day and 2007's Xecutioner's Return, did constitute a modest new wrinkle.)
Before seeing Obituary live last night, I'm not sure that I would've regarded the above quote from Donald Tardy (John's brother) as a particularly admirable one. I'll fully admit that I've often favored artists, musical or otherwise, who placed a premium on evolution, bands where every album provides a new plot wrinkle, where the obligation to the fan is not, as Tardy suggests, to deliver the familiar, but to move forward at the risk of baffling or even losing the listener altogether. I've had the idea of relentless progress on the brain lately in light of the exemplary Death reissues on Relapse. In terms of a death-metal career arc/track record, there really is no greater one than Death's. Once the band really started evolving in earnest, there was no looking back; trying to square the band's very good, very primitive 1987 debut, Scream Bloody Gore, with, say, 1995's Symbolic—a true progressive-metal masterpiece—is next to impossible. The band was still called Death, but leader Chuck Schuldiner (RIP) wasn't going to let that constrain his ever-heightening interest in dynamics, fluidity, technicality, beauty.
After seeing Obituary live, though, I think I need to reconsider the idea of holding every band to this standard. The fact of the matter is, if a band feels creatively satisfied tending to a small, well-defined garden year after year—and if you watch the video quoted above in full, you'll see that Don Tardy feels just fine about it—and if the audience supports that in full, what's the harm?
Working in the quartet line-up of the Tardy bros, guitarist Trevor Peres and bassist Terry Butler (no Santolla), Obituary put on an outstanding show last night, one of the best extreme-metal shows I've seen. And one of the major reasons for this was that their staunchly untechnical compositions—it's not too much of a stretch, nor is it a dis, to say that for the most part, the songs all sounded the same—made 100 times more sense onstage, to the extent that I had a kind of "Ohhhhhhhh, now I get it!" reaction. What I mean to say is that I can't tell you how many times I've gone to see a more technical extreme-metal band and been disappointed that the mindblowing level of detail I'd grown to love on their records was lost in the deafening blur that is the live metal show. These songs, on the other hand, are designed to be played live in front of a rabid, possibly intoxicated crowd. Obituary's songs are anthems; they are groovefests; they are the death-metal equivalent of great, catchy pop tunes. Whether you know them or not, they move you right on the spot; you dance; you mosh; you headbang; you marvel at how well John's vocal spew complements Peres's caveman riffage and Don's straightforward, borderline funky pummel. At Santos, this music sounded beautifully clear.
That's partly a credit to the club's excellent sound system, but it's also a credit to Obituary: Don Tardy's "We stick to what we're good at" took on a whole new meaning. To him, Obituary is like a really reliable family-owned pizza joint, let's say, that you can confidently patronize year after year. As it should be for just about any metal band, the point is to tour and put on great, fun and, yes, accessible shows. This means crafting material that will work onstage, and super-technical metal often doesn't work onstage. Obituary's material, on the other hand, comes screaming to life at their shows. They are playing for the kids, both in the audience and in their hearts.
This is a band that has never seen fit to compete in death metal's ongoing space race: the largely unspoken, but clearly very real competition to be the fastest, chopsiest, most complex. There's nothing inherently wrong with the progressive impulse, but the trouble is that it only favors the absolute elite, the handful of bands in the genre that can evolve without losing the plot. (Again, Death might be the pinnacle of this practice—the band that has done the most convincing job of upping its technicality while forsaking neither its extreme-metal-ness nor its compositional coherence.) In the end, the long-running band has no responsibility other than to itself, and at the core of that is Don Tardy's idea of knowing what one is good at.
Chuck Schuldiner was good at progressing, at pushing himself and the genre forward, and that's why Death never made the same album twice; Obituary on the other hand is more like any other great genre band: a great hard-rock group, a great bluegrass ensemble or jazz combo. They defined the parameters early on—the key ingredients were all there on the band's first record, 1989's Slowly We Rot—and they've thrived within those parameters ever since. See them live today, 22 years on, and you'll understand that there's no shame in that. Every member of the band was having as great a time as every kid in the pit. (I especially loved watching a clearly psyched John contribute guest floor-tom work on a few passages, as Don handled the rest of the kit—a modest curveball that yielded maximum charm.) These musicians found—some would say founded—death metal in their youth and they've held onto it like an elixir ever since.
The beautiful thing about the underground is that their fans feel the same way, by and large. They don't want Obituary to change. The message from the pit is "You're perfect just the way you are," and Obituary has no complex about that. They're close enough to their life force (i.e., the headbangers who attend their shows and buy their records) to understand that "progress" isn't for everyone. It holds no inherent value, only what you bring to it. If you can make a living as an artist, if you can satisfy yourself and your audience, churning out a uniform, high-quality product, then you are as successful as the artist who makes headlines by turning his/her aesthetic on its head every time out. As Obituary proved to me last night, staying still doesn't necessarily equal stagnation; for some creative entities, it's the smartest thing they could possibly do.