Beyond the Fretboard: Why Musical Purity is Overrated

(Image credit: join the dots via photopin cc)

I recently wrote a column called "Finding Inspiration in Unlikely Places."

In it, I encouraged every musician to step outside of their comfort zones and listen to different styles of music.

The main motivation for that article came after I saw a Dave Matthews Band concert. I had never been a fan but was impressed by the musicianship and the fluidity in which the band moved from song to song and jam session to jam session.

The experience of that concert helped to re-charge my batteries and made me think differently about how I approach music. Specifically, I began to pay less attention to the superficial importance of genres.

Musical categorization can be a useful way to cull through the seemingly endless supply of solo artists and bands that are out there in our current paradigm. However, one crucial drawback to categories is that they can create a sense of musical tribalism.

Rock, pop, metal, alternative, blues, jazz and hip-hop have die-hard fans who firmly believe the best aspects of their favorite genre lie in its purest form. Mixing these styles together can be thought of as blasphemous by some, an attempt to dilute their purity.

But is this really the case?

British author Matt Ridley is somewhat famous for writing and publicly speaking about the benefits of human collaboration. He posits that when ideas "have sex" with each other that technological and cultural progress occurs at a much faster rate than if those same ideas were separated in perpetual isolation.

Ridley contends that the increasingly elaborate combinations of ideas humans concoct is the driving force behind our preeminent status at the top of the food chain. He also acknowledges that the internet has helped make possible a new and unprecedented era of creative "cross-fertilization" we've never seen before.

When we apply this mentality to the context of music, the possibilities are endless. Kids growing up today have access to a vast and eclectic music catalog, all at their fingertips. This has the potential to slowly chip away at the concept of rigid categories.

Young people no longer have to rely solely on their parents', siblings' or friends' personal music collection. They can discover and listen to artists as diverse as Django Reinhardt, Pantera or Beethoven. All on their own. These young people will then start learning instruments, form bands and begin creating new and exciting styles that will be hard to categorize. In many ways, this is already happening.

For example, in today's landscape, the genre of metal no longer represents what it did 15 or 20 years ago. It has branched out into so many diverse sub-categories, which might alarm some purists. But this is helping metal (whatever that title now means) stay at the cutting edge of musical innovation.

I recently went to see a band called Ever Forthright at a small club in New Jersey. To some passive listeners, they could seem to be your run-of-the-mill, eight-string guitar chugging metal band. But after thoroughly listening to their debut album (Ever Forthright) or watching their live performance, you will instantly regret that rush to judgement.

They infuse some of the heaviest aspects of metal; guttural vocals, demonic guitar riffs and machine-gun-precise drumming with the instrumental textures of jazz-based piano (among other synth sounds) and saxophone. On top of all this, the vocalist effortlessly transitions from low growls to melodic and well-harmonized singing arrangements. Oh yeah, and he's also the guy playing the saxophone!

Now, you could argue that this style of progressive/experimental metal will have a hard time breaking into the mainstream of the metal world. However, I think the trend for avid music listeners is moving into this direction (groups like Animals As Leaders, Periphery, Between The Buried And Me and Tesseract come to mind). The breaking down of barriers will lead to the gradual acceptance by many of mixing what used to be considered incompatible styles. All of these things will persist as the cross-fertilization of human creativity continues, thanks in large part to the internet.

The internet was once considered the death knell of the industry and was feared by some musical heavyweights. In hindsight, this fear predominantly stemmed from an economic concern.

But now we're seeing the positive effects the internet is having on the expansion of all creative endeavors. Genres and categories will still have their place in the artistic realms of literature, film and music.

But the tribalistic tendencies of the die-hard fans might begin to fade away with time. Listeners will likely be less judgmental and more accepting of all types of music in the future. And bands such as Ever Forthright and others like them are helping to make this a reality.

Photo: join the dots via photopincc

Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. Due to a lack of members, Chris tracked guitars, bass and vocals for their self titled four-song demo (available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody). They have recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and are writing new material. Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project known as Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons as well (in person or via Skype). If you're interested in taking lessons with Chris, visit for more info.

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