In keeping with the rest of the entertainment world's ever-blossoming desire to cling to the warm, fuzzy blanket of existing intellectual property, with its easily calculable returns on investment, it seems like everyone everyone is getting the band back together. And if the band in question never broke up, it's touring on the promise of performing a classic album, often one that dropped in the '80s or '90s, when more people listened to a collection of songs all the way through, and when merely selling tens of thousands of records -- even hundreds of thousands in some cases -- could've been considered a flop. It's the creative equivalent of finding a five-dollar-bill in an old pair of jeans. But when does focusing on old work become a crutch for new bands that haven't got it anymore? And when does fan nostalgia lead bands who are still making interesting music to perform dull greatest-hits sets, instead of pushing their sound (and their fans) forward?
Morbid Angel has reunited with seminal frontman David Vincent and is touring on the 20th anniversary of its masterpiece, Covenant, the 1993 record with the distinction of being the first major label death metal album. The band will be performing the revered album in its entirety at Slim's on Nov. 27. It's extremely likely, however that this extended trip down memory lane was prompted by the fact that Morbid Angel's last album, Illud Divinum Insanus, received a drubbing from fans and critics alike. This is what marketing folks like to call "re-establishing your b(r)and." Morbid Angel may no longer be the king of death metal, but this year, playing one of the genre's seminal artifacts, it can be.
Then there's Carcass, reuniting after a more than decade-long hiatus to record Surgical Steel, a breathtaking return to form featuring fresh, clearly evolved material. Carcass is actually the current king of death metal -- the new album is already set to make several year-end best-of lists (including mine). So why doesn't the band concentrate on performing material from that record? If recent shows in New York are any indication, you'll still be getting a "greatest hits" set that is light on this revelatory new material. Ultimately, this is Carcass's decision, but it's one fueled by the market. And how does an audience react to not hearing the hits?
It's a shame that artists feel pressured into being entertainers only rather than boundary pushers and tastemakers. Carcass's new music is as intriguing as any modern death metal band's, perhaps more so when you consider how many of those bands are aping the sound that Carcass innovated in the first place. Reunions are one thing -- there can always be a valid and interesting reason for a band to get back together. But a greatest hits set aims for such a low bar both intellectually and culturally. It would be refreshing to see a band buck that expectation and push its fans, and itself, to grow.
Of course, bands may lean on the past because they know their audiences want them to. Some metal listeners are quite eclectic in their tastes; many, however, are more conservative about what qualifies as a valid entry into the genre. The metal audience has also fractionalized among people who'd have never gone near it 10 years ago, young urban omnivores with kaleidoscopic tastes, and, well, the Internet. It's risky, sure, but perhaps more bands need to adopt Mayhem's philosophy, as explained by Necrobutcher: "We never bargain with our stuff, we just release it. If people don't like it, then fuck them."