Something that occurred to me early on in my abandoned career as an assistant engineer at several recording studios, working on dozens of jazz, rock, metal, and pop sessions, was that young (and often, seasoned) metal musicians are constantly trying to prove themselves on record – to the extent that it has a dramatic effect on the actual art form as a whole.
Without naming names, I’ve heard a lot of albums over the last few years (perhaps due in part to the re-ignited interest in being “prog” or “avant-garde”) that feel over-written, and as a result, underplayed. You’ve probably seen bands like this in opening slots or at local shows – if you’re paying attention – it’s pretty easy to detect when a band is uncomfortable playing their parts live, because it forces them into a box where they’re constantly trying to play intricately-crafted parts, and as a result tense up and lose any chance of making an emotional connection with the audience. This happens with bands in every subgenre of metal, not just technical metal bands: I’ve seen it in punk, hardcore, thrash, black metal, grind, and everything in between.
Metal and rap have in common – although, with drastically different purposes and life experiences influencing them – artists trying to prove themselves through music. And funnily enough, both musics suffer from it on both the mainstream and DIY-y level (Kanye West and drill music for rap, Megadeth and startup prog or thrash etc bands alike for metal; all of these have been self-parodies for years).
One way this manifests is in the studio, with musicians who want to stand out on their (usually, very first) recording. After all, it’s their first statement, their first opportunity to try and say something to the world through art – they don’t want it to suck. They want their riffs to be as well played as possible, their solos to be as showy as they can make em, their drum fills to be flashy, their gang vocals to be tough.
Often this works to the detriment of their art. This isn’t because of the old (tired) adages that good records have mistakes on them or that playing technically well means you “have no feeling.” It’s just as possible for technicality to have feeling (i.e. Intronaut, Meshuggah) as it is for rough, mistake-filled playing to have no feeling (shitty hardcore bands). No: the problem is that the focus turns away from servicing the voice of the song, and instead services the individual player.
Further, there are practical problems that come with taking a lot of time during a recording session to nail a difficult part: you force your other bandmates to sit around waiting, you burn valuable hours, you tire out your ears listening to the same punched-in part over and over again, and if you don’t pull the part off the way you want to, you start to lose morale. Those four things kill the productivity of a session.
I’m not saying you need to dumb down your parts, or that you shouldn’t challenge yourself. The best thing to focus on is writing and performing parts that you feel comfortable playing, but if you are taking up hours during a session trying to nail a difficult part, then you should’ve spent more time in the preparation stage.
Jazz albums are often recorded live – the whole band at the same time – after a few takes through of a whole song. Jazz musicians talk about “getting hot,” an analog for being both warmed up and inspired to perform and discover music that they want to play. That’s a concept I think more metal bands could learn from, because it emphasizes finding the music within yourself, rather than drawing a rubric that you then try to mold yourself to.