Friday, March 14, 2008


While meeting for coffee with a seasoned veteran of rock recording, I was confronted with the idea that the Foo Fighters could be to blame – at least in part – for the current “loudness war” occurring in modern rock music production. 1997’s The Colour and the Shape was presented to me as the first of the “loud” records – an album that jumps out of the stereo and into your head, not only melodically but also sonically. There is nothing in producer Gil Norton’s discography at that point to indicate a thirst for pushing the limits of volume, yet TCATS attacked with a vociferousness that none of its contemporaries possessed. The choruses on singles like “Monkey Wrench,” “My Hero,” and “Everlong” simply explode, and the verses are usually not far removed. So this got me thinking – could my favourite album from my favourite band be an instigator of the downward spiral we find ourselves a part of?


No it cannot.

The real culprit, my friends, is all around the release of The Colour and the Shape, but not in it. Though 1997 saw the release of fellow masterpiece OK Computer, it also heralded the arrival of Deftones, Green Day’s Nimrod, and Re-Load, as well as, oh yes… the Backstreet Boys. Their self-titled album went platinum 14 times over in the US alone, and was followed by *NSYNC’s debut the following year, no slouch either, selling 11 million copies. 1998 also saw Korn’s first mainstream success, Follow the Leader, and here we start to see two different but equally-popular methods arising: the crystal-clear polish of the boy bands, and the bass-heavy, kick-drum-triggered nu metal crunch. Both approaches and styles were taking over airwaves and the first stages of the internet. After the successes of grunge, alternative, and pop-punk in the early- to mid-90s, rock music was getting pushed aside. Fighting for a place and a sound, producers took both elements – the pop sheen and the nu metal EQ – and threw them together. The result is where we find ourselves today: we have the best equipment to record, mix, and play music with the greatest dynamic range ever, yet we use less and less of it on records, to paraphrase the engineer I spoke with. And our ears are getting tired.

Whereas rock fans in the 70s and 80s related to albums on a personal and intimate level, blasting them through stereo systems or headphones, we cannot do that with the majority of albums released today. Putting aside how we connect to music currently, most records today literally fatigue our ears as we listen to them, assaulting them with so many frequencies and at such high intensities that we can only put up with it for so long. I’m sure many people have experienced situations where they find themselves physically unable to listen to music, usually after experiencing a high-volume setting for more than a short period of time. Sadly, this leads us to not value the experience of listening to and experiencing music as much as we should or could. Yet another reason why listeners no longer value music as a worthwhile piece of art, and instead treat it as a disposable commodity.

But at least it’s not the Foo Fighters’ fault.


josh said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. Even after talking about it last night, it's good to process the stuff by the written word.

That sounded cheesy. Really, it was a good read.

travis said...

tcats could never be lumped in with "loud" records for one plain and simple reason. it sounds amazing at a really high volume. i feel like "loud" records are in a lot of ways only tolerable for an extended period of time at a reasonable volume level.

although, you are defining "loud" quite loosely here. i gather that you mean over-simplification and some sort of over-production as well. maybe a little clarification is in order (?).

Ek said...

Here's the thing: TCATS (and some other FF songs) had a ton of dynamic contrast for pop-rock music, so in order for the softer parts of "Doll," "February Stars," and "New Way Home" to even be audible, the louder choruses had to pump it up. This is a problem with the early Smashing Pumpkins albums as well - if you listen to them at "a reasonable volume" in your car/house/office, there are substantial portions that you can't even hear.

Anyway, if I recall correctly The Who advertised themselves as "the loudest band on Earth" way back in the late 60s, so I doubt the FF or any band for that era can be blamed for starting the loudness escalation, although you could make a case that the boy bands/nu metal era pushed it to a whole new level.

eric said...

Well, I mean it in the context that those two links spelled out, as the "loudness" debate carries on.

Ek said...

That's why I should have checked out the link before posting anything, although I still maintain that the start of the loudness war mentioned there (which is actually a pretty good read if you're interested in that stuff) still predates FF. Anyway, if the two major negative effect of the loudness war are a failure to use dynamics musically and a decrease in sound production quality, I'd just have to say that TCATS was actually an excellent album for its time in both of those respects.

If they are responsible for the loudness war, it is only in the same way that MJ was once considered by some responsible for ruining the NBA - everything that they did was fine, but they were emulated by scores of others that weren't as capable and didn't really know what they were doing.

jv said...

And I was wondering why my currently frequent forays into listening to public radio always required me to adjust the volume knob up a few notches. Now this confirms my suspicion.