Music

How the hell is Disturbed’s ‘Sound of Silence’ even a thing?

Disturbed are set to tour Australia in November playing arena shows off the back of their biggest hit to date. But why has their cover of ‘The Sound of Silence’ struck such a chord with fans, asks RICHARD S HE. 

In just three months, 2016 has seen more of its share of big event records – Kanye’s Life of Pablo, Rihanna’s ANTI, Kendrick’s untitled unmastered. But maybe it all seems like noise to you, the same old manufactured pop music. Maybe David Bowie’s Blackstar is just a little too weird. Somewhere underneath all that bling and bluster, a vision softly creeps.

Disturbed’s cover of ‘The Sound of Silence’ has nearly 30 million views on YouTube, and comments full of testimonials like “haunting”, “stunning”, and “God, his voice make me an erection“. It’s Disturbed’s biggest hit since 2000’s ‘Down with the Sickness’. Triple M and mainstream rock radio are flogging it; the band recently performed it on Conan with a string section, looking very serious. Impressive, right? So why does the song sound like the dude from Creed grunting over an orchestra? Why are so many people moved by it?

With ‘The Sound of Silence’, Simon & Garfunkel warned us about the dangers of a society without empathy. It was the right protest song at the right time, a brooding anthem for the Vietnam generation. By covering it Disturbed also position themselves as cultural prophets, diagnosing the ills of society – while missing the point completely.

Hello nostalgia, my old friend

Their music video is a living, breathing monument to the internet’s favourite complaints about “the state of music today”. What if musical instruments turned to dust? What happened to guitars and drums, man? What happened to real musicianship? You can imagine Disturbed clenching their fists, holding back manly tears as they sing about what we’ve lost – “people writing… SONGS!!!”

Viral hits and subtlety don’t mix. By stripping away all the context of the original, turning it into an overblown, brain-meltingly obvious movie trailer cover song, Disturbed have pandered to a bigger audience than any original song they could ever write. In the ‘60s, buying a Simon & Garfunkel record signified that you were likely literate, politically liberal, and against the conservative status quo. In 2016, sharing a Disturbed video on Facebook is like unironically saying “Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.

Old men talking without speaking

“When Disturbed aren’t ruining classic songs they’re regurgitating hard rock cliches”

Disturbed’s career tells the story of how nu metal became dad rock. When nu metal first emerged in the ‘90s, it wasn’t a trend, just a loose collection of mildly uncool bands that didn’t belong anywhere else – Deftones, Slipknot, even Tool, to an extent. In particular, Korn – like ‘em or not – were one of the most genuinely original bands of the ‘90s. They turned metal’s rage inward, writing serious-yet-absurd songs about suffering abuse over dissonant funk riffs.

But by 2000, the formula deteriorated into self-parody, and Disturbed’s ‘Down with the Sickness’ was as bad as it gets. Jonathan Davis’ paranoid scatting become David Draiman’s much-mocked “oh, WA-A-A-AH!” The song’s bridge turns child abuse into a cheap joke.

When nu metal finally died, and the dust settled, the remaining bands abandoned the trendy rapping and DJ scratching. Now, when Disturbed aren’t ruining classic songs, they’re regurgitating hard rock cliches that were bad enough thirty years ago. You know, the kind of butt-rock Nirvana supposedly killed off? Simon & Garfunkel were true countercultural icons of the ‘60s, who dreamed that youthful idealism could change the world. Disturbed might be the desiccated remains of rock music at its worst. Silence would be an improvement.

Every generation grows up and rolls its eyes at the next. Some people like to think no one makes real music anymore. But there’s as much great, vital, innovative music now as there’s ever been. Some of it’s being made by guitar bands. Some of it’s being made by popstars, rappers, electronic musicians, or *gasp* even that Kanye West guy. None of it’s being made by the kind of bands who complain about “hipsters” and “trends”, who haven’t changed their formula in two decades. Maybe they should be worried.

No song is uncoverable. James Blake does a faithful, beautifully sung version of ‘The Sound of Silence‘ – but there is a genuinely great metal cover, too, by the Seattle band Nevermore. They completely rewrite the song, turning it into a thrash metal nightmare vision of Simon & Garfunkel’s future. It’s sacrilege, but it’s so daring that they actually get away with it. Remember when rock bands dared to alienate their audience, instead of pandering to people who barely listen to music? Now that’s something to be optimistic about.

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. He frequently tweets about Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ at @Richaod.

Disturbed 2016 Australian tour

Wednesday, November 9 – HBF Stadium, Perth
Saturday, November 12 – Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Sunday, November 13 – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Tuesday, November 15 – Entertainment Centre, Brisbane