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.