Controversial Artists: Loving Works by People You Hate

Within the past week, several serious allegations of abuse have come out surrounding the ever-so-popular artist your mom loves to hate, Marilyn Manson. Initially starting with Evan Rachel Wood, who came out stating that the shock-rock artist groomed her as a teenager and mentally abused her for years, more and more women who’ve had relationships with Brian Warner have piled on the allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse and misogyny. Within days, Marilyn Manson was dropped from his record label, his manager, and legions of fans, it seems, have overnight turned on him.

I’m not here to debate whether the allegations against the musician are true or not; it seems to be unlikely that so many people would care enough about ‘taking him down’ to falsify claims of misconduct and abuse. Like with Harvey Weinstein, it’s far more likely that one person with the courage to speak up emboldened other women – women who had felt pressure to remain silent for years – to finally tell their own truth. Perhaps Manson has been a terrible person for decades, and people willfully turned a blind eye; perhaps the power that comes with being a household name corrupted him to the point where he felt he could get away with whatever he wanted. Either way, it’s important that the victims of abuse – whether at the hands of powerful people or not – are able to come forward and voice their truths.

What’s fascinating to me about this most recent sensation is not that Marilyn Manson is capable of abusing women or power – I have no doubt he is – but how quickly the masses turned against him. In all the media frenzy I’ve seen regarding the situation, the closest to a counterargument I’ve seen was from Dita Von Teese, who simply said it didn’t align with her experience with Marilyn Manson, although she did eventually leave him because of his behavior and infidelity. Rather, everyone who had supported him throughout his career turned their backs on him in a heartbeat – faster, even, than if they had been completely ignorant of his abusive behavior. This, to me, is perhaps more telling than even the allegations themselves.

It reminds me of what happened with a slightly lesser-known band, Iced Earth, in the wake of the United States Capitol riots earlier this year. Photos of their guitarist, Jon Schaffer, actively involved in the violence surfaced only days after the riots took place, and within days, their label dropped them, the representation was lost, and Schaffer himself is, by all accounts, now arrested and awaiting trial. Although this is not related to sexual abuse as with Marilyn Manson – and there is less evidence that Schaffer was prone to violence prior to the riots themselves – the dropping of the artist like a hot potato is a theme that is starting to become a repeating pattern.

The question this poses for me is this: when an artist, band, producer, or celebrity of any kind ‘goes down’, and unsavory truths come to light about these people, where does that leave their legacy and their body of work? Can their music, their books, or their films still be enjoyed, despite what we now know about them as people? And while the answer might at first seem to be a simple ‘yes’, it doesn’t change the fact that new information can change our perception of old art.

For example, every time I watch The Lord of the Rings – often praised on this blog as one of the best series of films ever made – I’m reminded in the credits that Harvey Weinstein was their executive producer, and enormously influential in getting the films made. To an extent, I owe an abusive, manipulative sexual predator a debt of gratitude for helping bringing to life my favorite movies of all time. Does that somehow taint the enjoyment I get from simply watching the movies, removed from the fact that at the time, Weinstein’s behavior was either unknown, or at least a well-kept secret?

Moving forward, I really enjoy Marilyn Manson’s music. His album Mechanical Animals is a huge part of my youth, and his songs and lyrics spoke to me deeply as a troubled teen. When I listen to his music now, I can’t help but think that it was made by a sexually abusive creep. How can I still listen to his work, knowing now what I do about the man as a person?

Or what about Iced Earth – another band whose music I enjoy? Do I still listen to their releases, despite knowing that their main songwriter is in jail for inciting violence against the literal government of the United States? That he’s a right-wing nut job who would probably just as soon shoot me as look at me?

The paradox here is that art is created by humans – flawed, imperfect, and sometimes downright despicable – but the art itself, removed from the context of the artist, can often be enjoyed regardless of the creator’s original intentions, meanings, or personal beliefs and behaviors. After all, even Mozart has been thought to be a sexual predator and womanizer, but it doesn’t change the fact that, 200 years later, we still enjoy his music as some of the best to have ever been written.

Beyond that, what of financial support? With streaming platforms, every time I listen to one of Marilyn Manson’s songs, he gets money. Not much, but added up over all the fans he has around the world, and it still means that I’m providing a living to someone who I now know to be a fiend. It feels wrong to continue to support someone like that, but at the same time, it doesn’t change the fact that his music means something to me, both from a lyrical and nostalgic perspective. Do I simply cut off an entire part of my life, simply because I don’t agree with an artist’s behavior?

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to be found here; from Marilyn Manson to Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby, there countless examples of celebrities who have done unspeakable, immoral, or even illegal things. I think that, in most cases, most of these people were not inherently bad people to begin with, but I recognize that power corrupts; and while this isn’t an excuse to their behavior, it at least brings into consideration that what these people created and did for the greater good should still be taken into consideration, despite their aberrant, destructive and manipulative behavior.

Marilyn Manson may never create another record after this. If he did, I don’t know if I would want to listen to it. How could I in good faith listen to the words and music of someone who can do such horrible things to other people? But at the same time, I don’t want to stop listening to his existing body of work, because before I knew about his abhorrent behavior, it meant something important to me, and I know it meant something important to millions of others, as well.

I’d be curious to know what you think about this. When unsavory information comes to light about someone you once revered, does it change your perspective on what they already did? Are you still able to enjoy their body of work? Does the new information taint how you perceive not just the artist, but their creations? What are your thoughts?

Listening to Old Favorites in a New Way

I am absolutely terrible at finding gifts for people. I never really know what they’re going to like, and half the time I end up getting them something they don’t really like, or never end up using. So it was to my great surprise that this year’s big gift to my sixteen-year-old son turned out to be a great gift for the whole family, and one we’ve enjoyed almost daily ever since Christmas Day itself.

My son has, in the past few years, been getting seriously into music, to the extent of teaching himself guitar, writing his own music on the computer, and exploring worlds of sound that are far outside of my own experience – everything from brutal death metal to prog rock and avant-garde jazz. With all this interest in music, I felt it was finally time to get him – and by proxy, myself – into the theoretical best possible sound there is to hear – vinyl records.

So I splurged and ended up getting a decent record player and some serious speakers (within budget and reason), and it’s played at least one record a day ever since we first set it up in the living room (it was originally going to go in the loft). Along with it came Opeth’s In Cauda Venenum, Polygondwanaland by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and a whole bunch of old records we got second-hand from someone on Facebook.

And I have to say, both myself, my son and my wife believe it sounds better than anything we’ve ever heard – and I have both studio headphones for music production as well as some very nice consumer-grade headphones for general enjoyment. There’s an almost undefinable richness to the sound, a warmth and detail to the signal that just isn’t there in digital recreations – whether it be CDs or digital streaming.

The biggest problem with having a record player – aside from keeping it clean and dust-free – is that there just aren’t enough records to listen to! In these days of on-demand streaming and the commoditization of music, it’s hard to get used to the idea that you may only have a handful of records to listen to – and you’re going to end up listening to them over and over again. Vinyl’s expensive, too – most places sell records for $20-$25 each, which makes building a library a slow, long-term prospect.

Nonetheless, I’m really glad we have the record player now, even if to some it might seem like a step backwards; the pure audio quality of straight analog audio is incredible, and the whole setup itself is just somehow enjoyable. We sit together and listen to music, which is something we don’t even do with TV shows (everyone’s off in their own rooms binging Netflix and Hulu). It’s almost – I hesitate to say – brought us closer as a family, and that’s something I appreciate to no end.

So as listen to Beethoven and Blackwater Park on vinyl, I’ll continue to appreciate music as a beautiful art form, and as a tool for bringing people closer to each other, and enjoy every single moment of it.

Do you have a record player? If so, what are your favorite albums to listen to? Let me know in the comments!

The Best Albums of the Past 10 Years

Those of you who know me will know that music is a deeply integral part of my life, from listening to performing to composing. Even as a child, I knew there was a magic in music, something that spoke deeply to my soul and lifted me up, even out of the deepest depressions.

As my musical tastes evolved from classical to rock and metal, I’ve never stopped enjoying everything that I’ve ever liked, and what’s wonderful about this is that I have only an ever-expanding list of music that truly bring me joy. And the best of that music, the songs, works and albums that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are those I would take with me truly to a desert island – they are those I could not live my life without.

There has been a great deal of incredible music released over the past ten years, and I feel that the beginning of 2020 is an apt time to look back on the last decade, sift through the hundreds of albums I’ve amassed in my library, and see which ones spoke to me deeply, truly, and with heartfelt passion. It was no easy task, but I was finally able to whittle it down to ten albums that, for me, are the essential highlights of the 2010s.

10. Ritual – In This Moment

Ritual, released 2017

In This Moment are a band I’ve kept a close eye on ever since I heard the title song from their album, Beautiful Tragedy. There was something raw and powerful about Maria Brink’s angst-ridden vocals, and although there were issues with her tone and pitching, I knew this was a band that could truly come to the forefront of the alt-metal scene with a bit of practice.

The good news is, Brink has definitely been practicing. Album after album her vocals improved, as did the songwriting, and slowly a mix of genres begin to find their way into the scream-ridden despair of their music. 2014’s Black Widow was a masterpiece of bleak, gothic metal, dripping with rage and fear, but it was with Ritual, in 2017, that I felt they’d truly come into their own. With influences as wide-ranging as blues and pop, and a cameo appearance by Judas Priest’s very own Rob Halford, it sounds nothing so much as if Adele were tortured, nailed to an upside-down cross, and force-fed to a wild pack of wolves – and I love it. Ritual is, so far, their crowning masterpiece, and for me one of the best alt-metal albums of the decade.

9. Black Labyrinth – Jonathan Davis

Black Labyrinth, released 2018

Ever a fan of Korn’s low-tuned nu metal antics, I was curious to see what frontman Jonathan Davis’ first solo album would be like. Would it be a Korn 2.0? Would it be 80s alternative? Would it just be a rip-off of whatever bands came before Korn?

The answer, oddly, is a bit of all of that. More personal than Korn, and indeed at times darker (imagine that!), Black Labyrinth is a journey through the mind of a deeply hurt, guilt-ridden and exhausted person – someone who’s been through all the shit the world could throw at him, and still keeps coming back for more. Nowhere is this more evident than on tracks such as Happiness and Your God, with Davis cursing the vile minds surrounding him for stripping him of joy, faith, and humanity. Musically, the style is reminiscent of Korn, but if Korn had started in the early 80s rather than the 90s, and the influence of his childhood music is evident here. The opening to Underneath My Skin sounds like it could have been taken straight from an early Sisters of Mercy track, and the deep bass riff of What You Believe could have been a Michael Jackson bass line, distorted and on speed.

More than this, though, this album connected deeply with me emotionally, the lyrics relatable and meaningful to someone who also struggles with mental illness, addiction, and finding self-worth. Davis truly poured himself into this album, and it shows.

8. Hammer of the Witches – Cradle of Filth

Hammer of the Witches, released 2015

Ever since their seminal debut, Cradle of Filth have set the bar for melodic black metal, and whilst they’ve had their ups and downs in the quality of their output over the years, there are a few albums that stand out as true masterpieces of the genre, blending gothic style, brutal riffs, searing vocals and orchestral flourishes into something straight out of hell.

Hammer of the Witches is one of these. Opening as they so often do with an orchestral prelude, we’re thrown to the beast immediately with the first true track, Yours Immortally …, and while the following tracks are excellent examples of Cradle of Filth’s mix of horror and the gothic, when we get to Blackest Magick in Practice we’re treated to a truly gorgeous riff – something straight out of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue, leading relentlessly onward over the course of nearly seven minutes to a flourishing finish, laden with razor-sharp solos and soaring female vocals.

The rest of the album is equally enjoyable, and for its 57-minute run time it never feels dull or drawn-out. Every song is unique, yet instantly identifiable, and is unreservedly their best album of the past ten years.

7. The Ninth Hour – Sonata Arctica

The Ninth Hour, released 2016

Over the years, Sonata Arctica have stayed in the running for one of my favorite bands of all time. When they’re bad they’re good, and when they’re good they’re nothing short of musical perfection.

That being said, they’ve suffered in recent years from a series of lackluster albums, experimenting with various compositional aspects, failing as often as they succeeded. Ever since 2009’s The Days of Grays (to this day my favorite album of theirs), they followed with Stones Grow Her Name, with some odd songs and odder production, and Pariah’s Child, which frankly had some very silly stuff on it.

After two albums of, I hate to say, disappointment, I really didn’t have high expectations for The Ninth Hour. Perhaps that was a good thing, because it blew me away. Whilst they remain far from the best lyricists in the world, the sensitivity and delicate treatment of their quieter moments, juxtaposed with the fast-paced, juggernaut power metal they built their reputation on, made for an astonishingly good album. Even at 62 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the middle of the album – typically reserved for a band’s weakest songs – are supported by the deeply sad Til Death Do Us Part and the ever-so-delicate Among the Shooting Stars. Even the 10-minute sequel to White Pearl, Black Oceans feels natural and thought-out, and the gentle, almost tragic subtlety of On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal), borrowing from the lyrical and musical themes of the opening track, is an absolutely perfect end to a nearly perfect album.

7. Shadows of the Dying Sun – Insomnium

Shadows of the Dying Sun, released 2014

Winter’s Gate aside, Insomnium are not a band who veer too far from their tried-and-true formula for making albums. You always get a short opening track that builds to lead directly into the second track, invariably the catchy, riff-laden single, before veering away into longer, more cerebral songs. Shadows of the Dying Sun is no exception, but the difference here is that where many of their previous albums’ later songs are somewhat interchangeable, each track on this album stands out in its own right, placed exactly where it should be, and following each other in a very natural order.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Shadows of the Dying Sun is so far Insomnium’s best work, and make them for me one of the strongest staples of the melodic death metal scene. From the lyrical and memorable chorus of While We Sleep to the roaring fury of Black Heart Rebellion, and even the upbeat and encouraging Ephemeral, every moment of this album is crafted and tailored with care to ensure that ever song is as important as the next. There are perhaps better albums than this in the past decade, but something keeps drawing me back to this release – something honest, melancholic and yet hopeful.

5. The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden

The Book of Souls, released 2015

When Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold in 2000, bringing Adrian Smith with him to complete a triple-lead guitar lineup, it was to create one of their most masterful albums ever – the seminal Brave New World. Taking inspiration from their attempts at progressive metal in the 90s, and blending it with the melodic and bouncing riffs of the 80s that put them on the map, Brave New World was a sensation, truly proving that even an aging 80s metal band could still have something important to contribute to the world of music.

The succeeding releases, however – Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death and The Final Frontier – were progressively less impressive, harkening back to the unfortunate days when Blaze Bailey was on vocals and nobody could take them seriously. So when Iron Maiden announced that they would be releasing a double album including an 18-minute track about a British airship disaster, I was hard-pressed to think anything good could come out of it.

I have never been so glad to be so wrong. The Book of Souls is Iron Maiden’s most cohesive, structured and ambitious release ever, and if it becomes their swansong, it would be an absolutely perfect one. From the moment the ominous drone of If Eternity Should Fail, leading to Dickinson’s operatic vocal solo, to the epic finale of Empire of the Clouds, there isn’t a dud on the album – despite its massive 93-minute runtime. The true standout track, however, is The Red and the Black; over 13 minutes long, it contains one of the longest – and best – Iron Maiden rock-outs ever, with solo after solo coming fast and furious from all three guitarists, and Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris keeping a rollicking drum and bass rhythm that only urges the song further forward. Second to Brave New World, this is hands-down one of Iron Maiden’s best albums. Ever.

4. Feel the Misery – My Dying Bride

Feel the Misery, released 2015

My Dying Bride have literally never had a bad album. Even the somewhat contentious, electronic-tinged effort 34.788% … Complete in 1998 is still one of my favorites, and they’ve only matured and improved as the years have gone by.

That being said, their previous release, A Map of All Our Failures, was surprisingly brutal and heavy, even for a doom metal band, and whilst I learned to enjoy it over time, it still comes across as a little too harsh to me.

So when they released Feel the Misery in 2015, I was worried about the direction they were going in; were they returning to the more death metal roots from whence they came?

I need not have worried. Feel the Misery is quite possibly their most gloomy, melancholic album to date. It’s also one of their most concise, consisting of only eight tracks, most of which are under six minutes long. And whilst the first three, somewhat more epic tracks, flow smoothly into each other and have each their magic moments, it’s really when we get to the title track that you realize just how masterful this album truly is. Not only are A Thorn of Wisdom and I Celebrate Your Skin some of My Dying Bride’s most unique tracks ever, the penultimate song, I Almost Loved You, is on the level of 1996’s Gods of the Sun‘s closer, For My Fallen Angel. One of the saddest albums of the decade, this is truly one that will live in my hall of fame.

3. Endless Forms Most Beautiful – Nightwish

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, released 2015

I’ve always loved Nightwish’s bombastic, symphonic power metal, but when they started recording with live orchestras in 2002 with Century Child, they really became a different beast altogether. Never looking back, Nightwish have gone from strength to strength, even through three different vocalists, and when they released the concept album Imaginaerum in 2011, I didn’t think they’d be able to top it.

I was wrong. 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, is all that Imaginaerum was, and more. Not quite a concept album, the songs are more loosely based around the magic and wonder of the natural universe, with several songs directly referencing evolution as the most wondrous thing to ever occur in the history of time.

But beyond the lyrical content, the songs themselves are perfectly balanced, the orchestra blending seamlessly into the metal to the extent that neither one would work without the other. Every song is crafted masterfully, and the closer – the 24-minute epic The Greatest Show on Earth – is perhaps the album’s highlight, featuring spoken words from Richard Dawkins, blends of whale song and lion roars, and a dark, atmospheric piano opening that builds and builds to a massive crescendo by the final third of the song.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not only one of the best symphonic metal albums of the decade, it is truly one of the best albums, period.

2. .5: The Gray Chapter – Slipknot

.5: The Gray Chapter, released 2014

Slipknot are an unstoppable force; beyond a band, they spawned an entire culture around their music, affectionally calling their fans ‘maggots’, and taking their time between releases, ensuring that every album and song they create is nothing more than sheer perfection, a soundscape of rage and despair that echoes into the souls of millions, bringing people closer together through their shared love of this band. In recent years they’ve toured endlessly, released We Are Not Your Kind to critical acclaim, and seem stronger than they’ve ever been.

This wasn’t always the case. When original bass player Paul Gray overdosed in 2010, it seemed that Slipknot’s career might well be over. Coming only two years after the release of their fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, the band, ever a family, were thrown into despair, and it was unclear if they would ever be able to recover.

Coming on the heels of this tragedy, in 2013 Slipknot also lost their longtime (and famed) drummer, Joey Jordison. At first there was a great deal of rumor and conflict around the exact reason for his departure, and although it was later revealed that a neurodegenerative disease had been a factor, the animosity between the band’s members had never been higher.

So when it was announced that they were working on a fifth album, it wasn’t clear whether or not they’d be able to work through the pain, the grief and the rage, and come up with something that could top their previous four efforts. But of course, Slipknot delivered. And not only did they deliver, they did so in the only way they knew how: by dedicating the album to their lost companions.

.5: The Gray Chapter is a requiem to Paul Gray, and from Corey Talor’s powerful opening lines (“I don’t want to get back up / But I have to, so it might as well be today”) it was immediately clear that here was a band that not only refused to give up, but found strength in despair and courage in the face of tragedy. To me, .5: The Gray Chapter is Slipknot’s totemic masterpiece, a testament to grief, rage, loss and renewal that can – and will – never be topped.

1. Heritage – Opeth

Heritage, released 2011

And so we come to our number one album of the past ten years. For those of you who know me, you should know that Opeth are hands-down my favorite band of all time, so it may come as no surprise that I would cite one of their four albums this decade as my number one favorite. Yet with Heritage, Opeth took a hard left turn into uncharted musical territory, and along that path, turned into something so far removed from the Opeth of yore that it might as well be a wholly different band.

Completely abandoning the progressive death metal that has served them so well for nearly 20 years, Heritage is a look back to the 70s prog influences that had hitherto only been hinted at. Inspired by bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, the songwriting is intricate, complex, and masterful. Each song feels like a session improvisation, and yet with such meticulous attention to detail that it could only have been written and planned over months, with blood, sweat and tears poured into it.

On top of that, the production of this album is quite simply exquisite. From barely audible flutes to roaring rock organs and crunchy guitars, this isn’t an album to listen to lightly; in fact, some of it is almost unlistenable except with very good headphones, or an expensive sound system. And oh, is it worth it to listen to it like this! The sound and production is as much an art here as the notes that make the songs themselves, and despite continuing this style throughout the rest of the decade, they have simply never topped this first ‘new’ Opeth album.