My professional life has been the military and the police department. My world has been one of policies, special orders, and regulations. I don’t know how many I’ve read over the past three-plus decades, but it’s a LOT.
Nothing stays the same forever. The world and everything in it evolves, and we are forced to make adjustments. We get used to doing things a certain way, and then one day we learn our methods are out of date. We have to do things differently.
In my youth, this kind of shifting made me crazy. Then someone wiser than me pulled me aside and offered some sage wisdom. “When it comes to our world,” he said, “change is the only constant.”
Those words have never left me. I suppose that’s why I’m able to simply roll with changes, rather than try to fight them. It’s a lot less stressful.
I recently had my first experience with the Devin Townsend Project, a really heady progressive metal band. Townsend has been around for more than 20 years, but he never came across my radar. I picked up his new live album, Ocean Machine, and was absolutely floored by what I heard. I couldn’t wait to see where Townsend would take his band after this career-spanning retrospective.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Devin Townsend was breaking up his Project, and heading in a different direction. For the briefest moment, I was furious. Then I remembered that sage wisdom I was given so many years ago, and I was able to regroup.
Change is a constant everywhere, especially in the world of music. No musician or band spends an entire career playing the same thing. (Well, maybe AC/DC did.) Evolution is crucial to the musician’s survival. Sometimes, the musician needs different company to enhance this evolution.
It’s funny how I got upset with Townsend, when each pillar of my musical Holy Trinity — Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson — featured a virtual revolving door of musicians, each bringing a unique talent and contribution to the band’s overall sound. I adjusted then, and I’ll adjust now.
It’s not always easy. Like any other fan, I can get attached to a band and its sound. Prying me free of that sound is not easy. The 80s King Crimson might be my favorite, but they were far from the only incarnation of the band (and this version only worked between 1981 and ’84). In fact, founder Robert Fripp is the only constant in the band’s 50-year existence. The 80s band was the first to record consecutive albums, and I fell in love with that sound. It had next to nothing to do with Crimson’s sound between 1969 and ’74. The band had evolved, and continues to do so, claiming some nine different lineups, with a tenth a real possibility. Fripp deems change necessary to obtain his vision, so who am I to argue?
My favorite Miles Davis quintet (featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) was together for less than four years in the mid- to late 60s. Their music was a monster. But Miles was never one for standing pat. He had other places to be musically, and personnel changes within the band made that apparent.
I could listen to music from Zappa’s “Roxy” era band all day. But that wasn’t Frank’s first band, and it certainly wasn’t his last. I’ve often joked that no one ever joined Prince’s bands for job security. You came in and made your contributions. Maybe Prince wanted you for his next album, or maybe he didn’t. It depended on where the music took him.
Steven Wilson’s Music has evolved into a modern favorite of mine. I was a really big fan of his band Porcupine Tree. I just knew Wilson’s solo albums were a slight diversion from the band he seemed married to. But that shows what I know, as Wilson has taken his solo act to an entirely new plane.
Even within that context, Wilson continued to make changes. He added then eliminated sax player Theo Travis, changed guitarists at least twice and drummers on at least one occasion. There were constants like keyboardist Adam Holzman and bassist Nick Beggs, but the band continues to shift to suit Wilson’s vision, and brilliantly so.
The Internet age has opened the door to countless forums for nearly every band out there. In these forums, fans (usually under an assumed name) drone on and on about how BandA was better with this musician, or is far worse off with that one. Sometimes, the debates can get rather heated (and hateful). But the bottom line remains the same: many music fans struggle to deal with change.
I suppose this is another of those times Robert Fripp distinguishes his avid listeners as either fans or enthusiasts, as the latter are willing to let an artist evolve rather than remain stuck repeating themselves throughout their career. I am no exception. I willingly define myself as a fan of some artists, but a full-on enthusiasts of others. Even then, there are times I hope a band maintains at least part of its signature sound as it continues to evolve.
Which brings me back to Devin Townsend. I am definitely a fan of his Project, and what they were able to accomplish live. Will that enthusiasm hold for his next project? I don’t know.
But since change is almost always inevitable, I am willing to let him try.
Check out my new book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears. It’s available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine bookstores.
I just finished reading a book about Paul Simon that I’m planning on doing a post on in the not-too-distant future. Now, all of Paul Simon’s songs are recognizably him and deal with a lot of his major themes. But one thing that is consistent about him is his ability to change and grow. People thought his career of soft/folk rock was over when he and Garfunkel split in 1970. But then he went on and reinvented himself with reggae and gospel-inflected music. And then got into – for want of better term – world music with “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints.” (Not without some controversy.) So, yeah change is good for all of us but I think artists have to continually change and grow or be left behind.
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