How Arbitrary Comparisons Ruin Music

Comparisons are as natural as blinking. As individuals who relate our experiences with new things to our prior experiences, it’s only logical that we approach music in much the same manner, drawing similarities and differences between new and old artists as we hear them. Unfortunately, when comparisons are drawn at rudimentary surface levels, we run the risk of inadvertently delegitimizing upcoming artists with unknown potential. That may seem like a bit of a jump, so let me elaborate.

Throughout my tenure as the self-professed progressive rock nerd king in my formative teenage years, I naturally flocked to the altar of alternative metal legends Tool, who’ve made unmistakable impact on rock music since their inception in the early 90s. Later, I discovered the Australian band Karnivool, and that’s when I first began to see the deadly words scrawled throughout message boards across the internet: “this band is just a Tool knock-off.”

Are they really?

Sure, I could facetiously tell you that both bands make extensive use of guitars, drums and bass, but that wouldn’t get us anywhere. I could even tell you that both bands have exceptional vocalists, but that’s just another strawman. The only sensible rationalization for writing off Karnivool as a mere imitation stems from each band’s proclivity towards progressive instrumentation, utilizing complicated time signatures and extended track lengths with regularity. Perhaps the most damning evidence of all is that, every once in a while, Karnivool will lay down a riff that ”sort of might” sound like a riff Tool would play if Tool were still interested in playing music. The argument ends there, and really, if that is all the evidence Karnivool’s detractors can present, then their case may as well be thrown out the window.

Because, really, no Tool song quite captures the pure adventure of Karnivool’s “Sky Machine,” nor does any Tool song conjure the emotional uplift of the Australian’s epic ballad “New Day.” And, really, when have we ever heard Tool throw down a vocal melody anywhere near as infectious as the chorus of “Themata?” Furthermore, with Karnivool’s latest album, “Asymmetry,” the band has clearly demonstrated a refusal to stagnate, pushing their sound further away from the progressive alt soundscapes that defined their “Sound Awake” era. Tool, on the other hand, opted only to consolidate their established sounds into a concise, if unsurprising, anthology in “10,000 Days.”

The point here isn’t to cut down a band who deserves all the adoration they receive, but to illustrate that Karnivool, like so many bands before them, have been, and continue to be, unfairly maligned to the status of disingenuous doppelgangers. Seattle-based progressive rockers Rishloo have also seen their albums cut down to mere rip-offs, which, to be fair, isn’t a totally invalid argument to make for their first two records. With  2009’s “Feathergun,” though, the band began expanding their soundscapes into new territory, crafting a style that could only be and has distinctively become Rishloo. The band’s fourth album, dropped last December, only reinforced the notion of a band coming to terms with its individuality. Yet, flash forward to the tail-end of January, and comments such as “why should I jam this when I can just jam Lateralus” continue to worm their way into the conversation. It’s a shame, really, because if ears have any credibility as working body parts, there’s no way Rishloo’s “Landmines” can be mistaken for Tool.

Karnivool and Rishloo aren’t the only bands to suffer from these comparisons — they’re just useful examples to illustrate the absurdity. When critics and fans repeatedly slam these surface-level accusations down, the music of upcoming artists is quickly delegitimized. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s certainly one that’s caused a great deal of headaches for bands around the world. How many times have these useless comparisons to Radiohead or Bob Dylan been made? For the sake of new artists aspiring to make it in the godawful state of music industry today, the last thing we need is for more new bands to lose credibility.

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