Every Record I Own - Day 279: Cult Leader Lightless Walk
High art changed dramatically in the 20th century. It’s no longer commissioned by the church or by royalty. Art, in theory, belongs to everyone. It’s sold in galleries or hung in museums. But there was a shift around the time of the Dadaists where the most revered and prestigious art was no longer about surface level appeal. It was about “getting it.” And now, art isn’t necessarily meant to be enjoyed by everyone. It’s meant to appeal to the people who’ve studied it, who can appreciate the form as much as the content, who have the lexicon to discuss it. There is a certain classist attitude at work here: appreciating modern art requires education, access, and enough leisure time to cultivate an appreciation for abstraction. The church and royalty are no longer the gatekeepers, but the costs went up. Artists became millionaires, and only other millionaires could purchase their work.
Music has followed a similar path—perhaps since Stravinsky, or perhaps since the first rogue notes of bop–where the easy hook is considered too entry-level. Making something difficult lent it credibility. Music has adopted a dimension of context. It’s no longer about crafting a simple melody; it’s about reinventing the wheel; it’s about the process. How many press releases for modern indie albums read like artist statements? How many Pitchfork reviews read like collegiate beard-stroking critical analyses?
I think about this a lot in terms of metal. It’s a genre often considered to be base and juvenile, even though it avoids the easy hook. Take a look at Cult Leader’s Lightless Walk. There’s very little melody, nothing resembling pop’s verse-chorus-verse format, no danceable beats—it’s a record designed to be ugly and difficult. But it’s also an exhilarating and cathartic record. It doesn’t require a lot of intellectualizing, even if there is some adroit songwriting and nimble performances within its 11 tracks. And perhaps this explains some of the tribalism around metal. It takes a cultivated understanding and appreciation, even if the music in question seems vulgar, crude, and abrasive. It’s an elitism without the boundaries of education or finances. If you can crack the code of hoarse screams, blast beats, mathy riffs, and melodic dissonance, you’ve gained access to the metal intelligentsia. Welcome to the tribe.