The Dead Art of Instrumental Music

I don’t want to, um, incriminate myself, or anything like that, or mention any specific, you know, file-sharing applications or whatever, but but I recently… became aware… of a collection of one-hundred of the “greatest” instrumental “rock” songs of all time. (According to whoever compiled the collection, anyway.) There was a lot of stuff on that list that I didn’t consider rock – R&B, yes, but not rock. Bah, semantics; after all, is it not said that one man’s rock ‘n’ roll is another man’s tortured wailing of injured animals? What I found more interesting, though, is that there were only, I think, two songs on the whole thing released after 1980.

Whatever happened to instrumental rock music – at least in America – anyway?

I suspect that there are two forces at work. One is disco, which produced such a backlash in the American music scene that it, basically, gave us death and thrash metal by way of overcompensation. Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth… all basically, if you’re cynical, people trying extremely hard to be as “not disco” as possible. Turn the amps up to 11, go for that good old “wall of sound” effect, and – and this is quite important – sing (or scream) lyrics that could never in a million years be mistaken for disco. Instrumental music? Sorry, not nearly manly enough for the immediately post-disco-era hard rawkerz.

The other cause is that the mid ’80s saw the beginning of the famous-singer-who-can’t-play-an-instrument era, making instrumental music utterly unmarketable. (What, like Milli Vanilli were supposed to record an instrumental track? Right…) Not to question the existence of talent in any of the recent, ridiculously over-hyped “musicians” who’ve seen stardom come and go, but it’s all about singers – and lyrics – these days. (Number of Clay Aiken fans in the world? Far, far too many. Number of people who would buy, or even illegally download, an album of his backing band struggling through original instrumental compositions? Still probably too many, but not enough to make it financially attractive to the record company.) Even the popular bands who play their own instruments are, for the most part, all about looks, or looks and lyrics, rather than the music. (Sorry; one post-Seattle-grunge wall-of-sound sounds pretty much the same to me.)

The Europeans can still produce – and vault to a certain degree of fame and stardom – small groups of people who not only know how to play musical instruments, but can do so reasonably well. (They rarely record instrumental music, but, still… they could, if they wanted to and their record labels let them!) Why can’t America? Is it something in the water?

And, on a somewhat related note, given that, thanks to the iPod and other personal music players, more people are now listening to music with headphones than at any other time in history, why the hell can’t music producers (re)learn how to mix stereo music to take advantage of both freaking channels? What happened to variety? Listen to music from the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, and they were far more creative with stereo mixing than today, where everything is exactly the same, and practically in mono. (I’m not saying anyone should try to emulate some of the early Beatles stereo mixes, but there’s a much happier middle ground between what we get today and the extremes the Beatles went to on some of their songs.) Even in Europe, craptacular hardly-stereo mixes seem to be the norm, today. Why, Gods? Why?

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on April 23rd, 2009| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 4/24/2009 at 6:45 am Johan E Said:

    Post-rock is (mostly) instrumental, so you could check some of that out. Explosions in the sky and Mogwai are the first to come to mind.