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Metal music VS the internet – can it keep up?

2007-12-27
It seems that Internet radio is finally catching up with technology. After the "usual", human-operated Internet radios, such as Live 365 (DJ’s simply broadcasting their music through the Internet) some better options are at last at hand.
As a Metalhead obligated to the quality of Metal across the Internet, I decided to try out three automated internet radio websites, the ones I’ve been getting the most positive vibe about. Each music service is supposed to have decent Metal radio, but do they actually work?

The first two services, Pandora and Last FM, which you’ve probably heard of, came onto the Internet radio scene bringing something new; automated systems that play the music they predict the user wants to hear using a set criteria; one, based on what the user’s friends like to listen to (Last FM), and the second, predicting music taste by breaking down the music itself into general and technical characteristics (Pandora). The third is MeeMix, a newcomer (currently in the Beta stage), claiming to combine these two methods into a single process of music taste prediction, which also combines something akin to LastFM’s community services.

Up first is Last FM – started out by typing in Atrophy, the fantastic thrash band from the early 90’s, and without so much as a virtual blink, the station played a Goth/symphonic song from a modern band of the same name. Last FM meant well, as the player stated it’s similar to Forbidden, Laaz Rockit , etc., but it was still a completely different band! Now, as far as my knowledge in metal goes (and it goes pretty far), the thrash band is better known among Metalheads than the band selected, but inevitable from a service based on users, you tend to get weird results.

I decided to try Last FM’s community option to see if I can draw some knowledge from the users in the system, I visited a user named "Thrashhead," which the system listed as listening to Laaz Rockit. Well, the user’s top band was Guns N’ Roses, and Talking Heads was placed a close third… Evidently, there’s a very good chance that I won’t get the kind of music I want to listen to from him. I checked out a few others, and there are plenty to choose from, but each one was so unique, so different in his personal taste, that I couldn’t find ONE that fit my own, or even came close.

Also, the way the majority vote decides the fate of musical definitions leads to some silly mainstream decisions that left very little space for anything less commercialized. Basically, the friend-generated taste method doesn’t work for me either.

Pandora’s system is a bit better, tough not as interesting from a networking point of view, The songs played for me fit in better, and as a whole seemed more accurate, though a far cry from being good.
I don’t really know what Pandora’s specific classification system includes but I think I got an accurate impression if it. If I ask for a symphonic black metal band such as Dimmu Borgir, I don’t want my second artist to be Sodom. Though they may have influenced black metal with their first albums, the two bands work in completely different metallic genres. I would expect to get more symphonic black metal with Dimmu Borgir, instead of old-school thrash. Had I asked for Destruction, or Assassin, Sodom would have been a good choice, but again, Pandora’s way of "thinking" seems too generalized for someone that knows his music well and has a specific taste within the genre.
One can label most extreme metal genres as similar (and that seems like what Pandora does), but the fact remains that Black Metal and Death Metal are not the same, and some people who listen to one genre, do not necessarily listen to the other.

The third and newest option - MeeMix, did a pretty good job at combining the two. From what I’ve learnt about the service, MeeMix is an Internet radio system that combines elements of the former two sites, taking into account social as well as musical parameters when forming a picture of what the user may like to hear.

In MeeMix you can open a station based on an "artist" or a "track," so I started off with the track option (which they state is better to do). When I asked for the track "Until Kingdom Come" by "Kamlot" (from the excellent "The Fourth Legacy" album), it didn’t just throw a whole bunch of melodic metal bands at me, it started out with other symphonic power metal bands, such as Arachnes, Sonata Arctica and Dionysus, specifically with songs that resembled the one I asked for, with strong melodic keyboard work, driving double-bass drumming, and high, vibrato-rich vocals.

I also tried some technical death bands, this time using the "band name" option. I chose Australian tech masters Arsis and MeeMix played the brilliant "I Speak through Shadows." Another interesting feature in MeeMix is that it allows you to actually grade the song you’re listening to on a scale of -6 up to +6, rather then Pandora’s more limited rating option of "I like it" or "I don’t". I graded this one a four and the system played a second song by Arsis a few tracks later, meaning the system learns what you like and what you don’t, and plays you music accordingly.
Anyone who knows Arsis knows that they borrow heavily from the originators of tech death, the almightily Death themselves. So the next track was "The Philosopher", one of the best known tracks by Death, from the Individual Thought Patterns album, and after that played the "Revelation of Existence," one of the best tracks in Decapitated’s mighty "Organic Hallucinations" album (their last, sadly, with the recently deceased "Vitek").

keep in mind if you wish to make use of MeeMix’s community features you have to put some effort into the system, though certainly user-friendly, it takes some more thought and attention than you need if you only wish to listen to the radio by itself.

So, Internet radio has grown in leaps and bounds, but a perfect system is yet to be discovered. Apart from the ones I reviewed here I know of at least 10 more, but from the rather limited amount of time I spent checking them out I’m more inclined to stick to the three I mentioned, and there’s a good reason why. All of the above radios have their pros and cons, LastFM’s system reacts quickly enough, Pandora is very simple to operate, and MeeMix has the most accurate results metal-wise, which one should you use?
Well, this is very much a matter of taste; I hope my endeavors helped in making the picture at least a bit clearer.

Alon Miasnikov

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