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> Game On: How Video Games are Rebooting Hard Rock
post Mar 19 2009, 10:34 PM
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I am a : Guitarist

'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band' transform the gaming world and redefine music careers

By Jonathan Zwickel
Special to MSN Music

To the untrained eye, it appears to be another heavy metal guitar solo played by another long-haired guitarist. Herman Li of DragonForce is posed atop a center-stage riser at White River Amphitheater near Seattle, Rapunzel-esque locks set a-blow by an industrial fan at his feet. He leans into a dizzying, whammy-barred barrage, cueing thousands of black-T-shirted teenagers to bring up hands into a classic pantomime. But to anyone paying attention, the audience response is something new: These DragonForce fans aren't playing air guitar, they're playing air "Guitar Hero."

This summer, the "Guitar Hero" phenomenon burst from the world's sports bars and dorm rooms onto the main stage at the 29-city Rockstar Mayhem festival. Each band that led the North American tour -- openers DragonForce and Mastodon, plus co-headliners Slipknot and Disturbed -- has a song featured in "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock," released by L.A.-based Neversoft in October of last year. It's sold more than 8 million copies and just as many plastic guitar controllers since then.

Together with "Rock Band," the competing title unveiled last year that's moved 3.5 million copies thus far, these games have changed the landscape for both the gaming and music businesses, replacing the mayhem of multiplayer shooter games with virtual power chords and pantomimed string-bending. Both games have drawn heavily from rock standards to provide their songbooks, with the games now emerging as a new platform for promoting new releases: This summer saw a reunited Motley Cr?e debuting its new single on "Rock Band," bypassing radio entirely, while Metallica, which has seen sales of earlier classics rekindled by "Guitar Hero" placements, is making its new album, "Death Magnetic," available as a download through "Guitar Hero III."

The cultural ripples sent out by "Guitar Hero" are coming back in waves, and it's the modern-metal contingent that's making the most. The head-banging, ax-shredding Rockstar Mayhem fest was sponsored by an energy drink, but "Guitar Hero" might as well have been behind it.

Slipknot and Disturbed can be classified as old nu metal; both have been in business for more than a decade and have sold millions of records. (Disturbed, in fact, claimed their third consecutive Billboard No. 1 debut this past June, the seventh band ever to do so.) DragonForce and Mastodon are more recent arrivals, previous denizens of the metal underground who have seen increased interest in their music thanks to "Guitar Hero III." For them and other upstart metal bands, the overwhelmingly popular game couldn't have arrived at a better time.

"'Guitar Hero' is a good steppingstone to get your name out there, especially for a band like DragonForce, who got major exposure off of it," says Dan Donegan, guitarist for Disturbed. "You might not normally hear of bands like that."

DragonForce is poised to lead the pack of gamer/hesher crossbreeds. The U.K. sextet plays a grandiose, overdriven sort of meta-metal, or maybe gamer-metal, once described by guitarist Li as "Journey meets Slayer." Li acknowledges the influence of classic Nintendo and Sega music on the band; their hyper-driven epics could provide the soundtrack to some outer-space fantasy shooter. It's triumphant stuff, full of double-time kick drums, major-chord synthesizers, and minutes-long dueling guitar solos, and Li is quickly gaining notoriety as one of rock's newest technical wizards. Not surprisingly, DragonForce's "Through the Fire and Flames" is said to be the most challenging song on "Guitar Hero III."

"All the pieces kind of fell together at the same time -- the "Guitar Hero" game, the music, the song, the audience that listens to us," Li says. "Taking guitar as a whole -- not just playing rhythm as a background instrument -- guitar has been kind of missing in metal rock music for a while.

I think we're taking it to a different level than the previous bands do, and it's cool that the younger people are getting to that as well, even if they use a video game to understand it. It took video games for them to understand guitar!"

Donegan and his band mates noticed the same phenomenon. The video for Disturbed's hit single "Stricken" is posted on YouTube alongside videos by fans playing "Stricken" on "Guitar Hero III." From there, fans began sending videos of their own attempts at the "Stricken" guitar solo, played on actual guitar. They wanted a lesson.

"We realized that since this whole 'Guitar Hero' craze happened there are more and more kids who are asking these types of questions," he says. "At first we started off just critiquing their video and trying to give 'em pointers. And then we realized there might be a cool way to make it more personal by actually getting on our instruments and showing them."

The production for these "distructional" videos, set to launch this fall on the band's Web site, will be downright "Guitar Hero"-ic, natch. "Our camera guy will show the fretboard of the guitar and lights up the fingering as it's going," Donegan says. "We try to make it as simple as possible so it can be for kids who are just starting to learn these riffs." Thanks to "Guitar Hero," the guitar hero is being demystified.

Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher is thrilled that "GH" brings new fans to his band but is less optimistic about the notion that kids are learning to play an instrument by playing a video game.

"If they are, they're gonna be totally confused, like, 'Oh, this is nothing like 'Guitar Hero,' playing a real guitar'," he says. "You gotta remember it's a video game, you're not really playing guitar. That's the whole thing about video games -- you go into a fantasy world to do things you normally wouldn't be able to do."

For some bands, that means merely staying relevant. Witness the June '08 release of "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith," in which players crank leads by Joe Perry of the hard-rock godfathers. The game sold more than 567,000 copies in its first week, as reported by Rolling Stone, and grossed more than $25 million. Compare that to the 160,500 copies and $2 million sold by Aerosmith's last studio album, 2004's "Honkin' on Bobo." That comparison underscores the logic behind Metallica's willingness to release their ninth studio album, "Death Magnetic," simultaneously in the real world and as a download for "Guitar Hero III."

"To kids it's just a song," says Mastodon's Kelliher. "They don't have to know who Aerosmith is. They just download the song and play it. And then if you like it you find out who wrote it, and you go to the store and pick it up or whatever. It's all marketing, trying to sell your music, obviously."

Along with game sales, downloadable songs are a massive moneymaker, for Neversoft and for individual bands. According to Rolling Stone, fans have downloaded more than 20 million $2 tracks, with bands and labels earning about 50 cents per track, more than they net from iTunes and other download sites.

"People go on about the video game industry sucking all the money out of the music industry," Li says. "I think selling games can actually help the music industry, or the musicians anyway."

There's a lot of money flowing through that plastic guitar, but the more intriguing development is shifting creative currency. Video games are actually changing the way music is made.

Li describes the lead single from DragonForce's album "Ultra Beatdown," released on Aug. 20 with a concurrent "GHIII" download: "We actually wrote the song, called 'Heroes of Our Time,' thinking about 'Guitar Hero.' We said we can't have the intro less extreme than 'Through the Fire and Flames.' That's why the beginning of "Heroes of Our Time" is absolutely insane. The guitar is really over the top."

Source : music.msn.com


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post Apr 7 2010, 05:28 PM
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Thanks alot for this article!!

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