Monday, April 15, 2013

Metal Scholarship, and the Evolution of Distortion

From this Wall Street Journal article. See, I knew there were other people out there who thought deeply about metal! I'm hurt that I wasn't invited as a speaker, but I'll look past this slight for now. (See also the International Society for Metal Music Studies, and the Metal Travel Guide.)

The article and associated resources yielded a few interesting insights. First of all, I confess I'd never heard of Link Wray, the claimed originator of distortion, in his song Rumble (1958), but on reading further I disagree with this claim. Previously I'd assumed that the Kinks invented distortion in 1964, and there may have been independent discoveries. Wray was a reverse Lars Ulrich (or Ulrich is the reverse Wray) in the sense that Wray moved from San Francisco to Denmark and he's early enough that, like Elvis, his work clearly pre-dates the split between rock and southern/country music. Like a kind of musical cynodont, representing the last common ancestor between reptiles and mammals.

Elvis in the Late Permian. Note he was already putting on weight.

But to claim that Wray originated distortion when there is no direct line of inheritance is meaningless. By this same argument, Plato's Timaeus (where he discusses fictional Atlantis) is science fiction, and the people who lived in Minnesota in 5000 BC and made metal tools, then forgot about it until Europeans arrived (yes, really) founded metalworking in the Americas. If there's no continuous activity and no knowledge at all of the earlier tradition, they weren't the originators; they were ahead of their time but without them, that part of history would be the same. So that's why you can call B.S. on (for example) the claim that rock and roll was invented by Roosevelt Graves in 1929 at the Hattiesburg, Mississippi train station (even if I did actually visit that train station at one point to pay my respects.)

What's still interesting, beyond any arguments of who we can call the inventor of distortion, is that the guitar as an instrument has this tension of constantly wanting to become a percussion instrument, and in the mid-20th century technology finally allowed it to achieve this. I would argue strenuously that the nature of the instrument and the way it interacts with our nervous systems justifies such unapologetic teleology. (And note too that you don't see people doing the opposite, i.e. bowing instruments which are normally plucked, for anything but a gimmick.) String instruments started as plucked instruments and only later, probably in the Eurasian steppes of the mid first millennium, did someone think to create a sustained tone by bowing them with horsehair. While plucking gives string instruments a unique sound, it limits their volume, since the decay is so rapid. Consequently when electricity came to music, a method of increasing the punch and sustain of the guitar simultaneously was necessarily close behind. Hence three decades after the first electrically amplified guitar, Wray and the Kinks were the Wallace and Darwin of distortion, and from there in a mere two more decades, it was not an accident that a former drummer (one James Hetfield) was one of the principal architects of essentially the final percussive sound of the instrument that we know today.

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