Commentary

Hard times call for really hard music

Updated: June 9, 2009, 3:51 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

When I was in college, I would often come home from a long day feeling like a carhop at Sonic after free root beer float night. I would grunt a hello to my roommates, slam my bedroom door, put in a CD of something aggressive and loud, and lie on my bed until I felt like I could deal with the world. Meanwhile, my roommates were likely taking bets on whether I was slitting my wrists or toeing a trigger.

Patrick Stickles
Roger Kisby/Getty ImagesSinger-guitarist Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus gives his approval to turning the heavy music loud.

In those years, I was feeling my way through heavy music. When Nirvana's "Nevermind" was released, I was a happy-go-lucky 13-year-old boy who hadn't yet faced much in the way of rejection or the angst associated with it. My high school years were sunnier than those endured by most people; I had good parents, I lived in a small town, and I spent most of my time looking forward to the start of basketball season. Therefore, I was ill-prepared, musically, for the barrel of anxiety that college would be for me.

(I know that college wasn't supposed to be that way. Most college students, though, are not nearly as neurotic as I. Nor do they have a basketball coach practicing mind-control techniques on them for several hours a day.)

Eventually, I found that listening to Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails or Tool helped. I could form a wall of sound in my room, block out the rest of the world and calm down. In its way, my method was a form of meditation. I'd let the music wash over me, taking with it a coach's screams or a frustrating engineering assignment. The merits of my method are debatable; some psychologists would maintain that I should have been listening to relaxing music. But I've found Maynard James Keenan to be much more relaxing than Sarah McLachlan.

Like most people older than 25, I have fewer bouts with deep melancholia. But the volatile nature of my life as a basketball player/writer still lends itself to the more-than-occasional need to cope with rejection.

Mix that with my own natural anxieties, throw in a dash of my previously chronicled current state of mind and, well, it's time to write about some music that's a little heavy.

A pitfall of the hard-rock scene is the inherent difficulty in finding good, heavy music. Apparently, most people never have problems (or are better-adjusted than I) and so prefer to listen to Coldplay or The Fray. The brave souls who do venture into choppier musical waters usually end up waylaid by the Scylla and Charybdis of classic hard rock and current pop rock. They go to Buckcherry concerts, put up devil horns and say things like, "This is awesome! But nobody rocks like Van Halen."

Neither Buckcherry nor Van Halen qualifies as "heavy" music. And, in all actuality, the heaviest music that I listen to (Deftones, Pitchshifter, Mudvayne, Killswitch Engage) would get me laughed off the burnout table in the lunch room.

Further complicating matters is the fact it is challenging to make hard music. The arrangements get trickier, and a guy can sing about how the world is aligned against him in only so many ways. I think this makes the accomplishments of, say, Ultraspank, much more impressive than the work of, say, Jack Johnson. But try explaining that hypothesis to a girl at a beach party and see where it gets you.

In the last few months, I've slowly wrapped my Eustachian tubes around albums by three bands that have passed my stringent hard/heavy music test. If you've ever lost a job, failed a test, botched an interview or accidentally killed a stripper, you might find solace with one of them. For those with perfect lives, here is the Fray's Web site.

For my fellow part-time misanthropes, here's some rock music:

Titus Andronicus -- The Airing of Grievances

Titus Andronicus is widely accepted to be Shakespeare's bloodiest play, making the band's name a fitting one. T.A. sounds to me like the band that would be formed if Rob Roy was a 19-year-old skateboard punk from New Jersey who had grown up listening to Brand New and had just been given access to a recording studio, a guitar and Conor Oberst's voice. And yes, I mean that Rob Roy, the Scottish Robin Hood played by Liam Neeson in the 1995 movie. Listen to my favorite song from the album, called "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" and you'll understand.

Titus Andronicus' music is driving and desperate, yet vaguely optimistic. Parts of their songs are beautiful, parts of them are jarring and almost all of them work. One, "No Future," seems to be a cautionary tale against the perils of growing up; the key change employed midway through the chorus of "Your life is over" is brilliant, almost saying, "Seriously, we mean it."

As with all three of the albums I'll discuss here, it will take several listens before any comprehension takes place. If you're looking for a starting point among the three, this is the album. Most accessible song: "No Future." Start there, get a foothold, and thank me in three weeks when you like the entire record.

[+] EnlargeDamian Abraham
Karl Walter/Getty ImagesDon't look for Damian Abraham's band opening for the Jonas Brothers anytime soon.

F---ed Up -- The Chemistry of Common Life

I've noticed an alarming trend of late: rock bands using the dreaded f-stop in their names. Obviously, I can't list them all here -- it's a Disney-owned site -- so you'll have to trust me. The trend makes it difficult to write about those bands. Most of them are relatively disinterested in the mainstream anyway, and that might be exactly why they have the word in their names. Last summer, I saw a band called Holy F--- play in Barcelona. I wrote a piece about it, which can be found on their Web site After I wrote it, my father claimed I had gloried in the opportunity to type the carnal knowledge word. He wasn't entirely off-base.

Returning to FU, as I'll be calling them for the rest of this column...

T.A. and FU could certainly be classified as punk rock, but FU is probably closer to being a pure punk band. They sound like Queens of the Stone Age, if that band were fronted by a pair of Siamese twins who happened to be named Howlin Pelle Almqvist and Henry Rollins.

When the apocalypse comes, FU will be the music playing over the government-installed loudspeakers. Their sound brings to mind strip-mining, dehydration and William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea.

Thankfully, hiding in there somewhere is enough melody and pleasant guitar work to keep punk fraidy-cats like me interested. The album's first song, "Son the Father," is the best and can be found here. Have patience with the flute intro.

Mastodon -- Crack The Skye

I saved the heaviest for last.

[+] EnlargeMastodon
Shirlaine Forrest/WireImageGive Mastodon's "Crack the Skye" a listen at your own risk. You've been warned.

If Titus is a chain saw and FU is a jackhammer, then Mastodon is a bulldozer driven by a post-adolescent member of Hamas.

In 2006, Mastodon released "Blood Mountain." It was a favorite of music critics everywhere, so I gave it a chance. I ran from my room screaming after the first listen. It was just too brutal for me.

This year, the band released "Crack the Skye." I ignored the rave reviews this time around, assuming that my ears remained too fragile. But reader after reader implored me to give it a chance. Eventually, Matthew G. took it upon himself to iTunes gift it to me; he felt that strongly about the record.

Over the past three weeks, I've done everything I can to penetrate the wall of noise that is "Crack The Skye." Early indications were very positive -- there haven't been many better songs than the album's first track, "Oblivion," in the past year. But from there, it gets messy.

I persevered.

Now, after a dozen or so listens, I sometimes hear the beauty of the garroting guitars and frantic vocals. "Crack The Skye" is not a record for everyone. For most people, the only situation for which it would be useful is if those people found themselves on a Viking ship with 30 bearded Norsemen en route to the nearest medieval city in order to burn it to the ground.

I'm still not sure "Crack The Skye" is a record for me. Maybe that means I'm getting old. It could be that I'm less angry. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I gave it a chance, because even in the most idyllic life I can imagine for myself, there will still be times for closing myself up in a room and creating a wall of sound.

And for that, "Crack The Skye" is perfect.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here.

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