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No, Metalheads Aren’t All Supposed to Get Along

Introduction:

The Heavy Metal sub-culture is a patchwork tapestry of inter-related scenes and subcultures known as a bricolage culture. Viewed as a whole, it can be generalized that it’s dualistic in nature.

I’ve written articles detailing the inherent divide in heavy metal, as well as the current incarnation of that divide. Building on this body of work, the purpose of this article is to discuss the nature of the relationship between the mainstream and underground factions of the culture with the express intent of shedding some clarity on the nature of Heavy Metal Culture as a whole. Specifically, the nature of discourse between members of the culture in relation to the music.

Metal Culture is Inherently Populist

Due to societal reactions to metal since it’s inception, heavy metal culture at it’s core is inherently populist in nature.

What I mean by this is that heavy metal is a musical style that caters to the needs and desires of the fanbase – the consumers tell the artists what they want. This is exactly opposite to the business model of musical culture in general – where major labels and musical oriented media (from now on I will refer to it as the Pop Machine) tell people what to like.

Now, the standard musical model of “taste-makers” telling consumers what is good/popular has it’s benefits – mainly that musical boundaries are clear and concise. There is little to no room for discourse, because musical definitions and standards are pre-defined for the consumer. The consumer is free to take it or leave it, and discussion is set within certain parameters. However, the entire setup is contrary to what a lot of people understand art to be – a manifestation of individualistic expression that exists for personal interpretation.

One of the things that the pop machine has been pretty consistent about is it’s rejection of metal music. Since rock critics first started writing about Black Sabbath in the early 70’s, metal has been institutionally ignored, discarded, set to the side, and left to it’s own devices. Normally, this would mean the death of a musical movement – as a lack of radio play and media coverage by the pop machine is meant to squash out artistic movements that do not conform to the pop machine standard.

The Reactionary/Oppositional Component

A lot of the modern day prejudices against metal bands and fans are a direct result of the pop machine. The very survival of the musical style required a following that, in time, would become a culture. Critics touting the music as a low-brow art form that caters to the lowest common denominator since the 70’s literally set the tone for a key aspect of metal culture – it’s inherently oppositional nature.

This nature served it well in the decades that followed. In the 80’s metal become the moral panic of the day – it was used to scapegoat aspects of the culture that then (then) conservative majority disliked. This peaked in the now infamous PMRC campaign that led to a (partially successful) congressional hearing in the United States relating to the censorship of ALL music.

preist

Conservatives opposed heavy metal culture due to it’s inherent opposition to authority, and Liberals opposed it due to the admitted hedonistic nature and low-brow appeal. The church opposed metal culture because, well, metal culture opposed the church in most cases. The music and it’s culture were under constant scrutiny and assault for the better part of a decade. This is not an environment that breeds “happy go lucky” or “inclusive” cultural traits. And the 90’s weren’t much better for metal. The police were trained to target metal fans as criminal lowlifes. The pop machine declared metal dead (wishful thinking?). When a few sick kids in Columbine got together and planned a horrible school shooting, heavy metal was the scapegoat. And so on, and so forth.

heavymetalarticle1

A Quick Recap

So, we can see that for (at least) the better part of 30 years heavy metal culture continued to exist specifically because of it’s oppositional nature. And the nature of that culture is reflected in it’s membership. Metalheads, by and large, have a confrontational and aggressive component to their personalities. It’s not up for debate, it’s just a fact. This may seem contrary to scientific studies that state exactly the opposite (that metal fans are creative, easy going, introverts with high self esteem – closer to the profile of a classical music fan) – but it all makes sense in context, so please bear with me as I stumble through an explanation.

I think metalheads, in large part, are attracted to metal because it offers a healthy outlet for negative emotion (i.e. the aforementioned aggressive/confrontational proclivities). Without all those pent up, negative emotions an individual is better able to function – so the personality traits displayed in scientific studies are expressed.

So, while metalheads may be more well adjusted than your average person – they still retain an inherent combative/oppositional nature. The culture reinforces this, and the attitudes then reinforce the cultural position – it’s cyclical.

Back to the Present Day

Applying this to the present state of heavy metal gives a little context and clarity to the situation. As noted by Sam Dunn in one of his Banger segments (I believe it was the one discussing metal in popular fashion) – heavy metal has lost a lot of it’s “outsider” status. It’s not as culturally threatening as it was even a decade ago. As such, major opposition to heavy metal has virtually disappeared – but that confrontational nature still exists. The most common expression of this is through infighting.

Some people might scratch their heads at this, but it makes perfect sense. I’ve heard metal culture referred to as a “big family”, “friends you’ve never met”, and a bunch of similar pseudo-hippy garbage terms. A more accurate description would be that metalheads constitute a “neo-tribal culture” based around a common appreciation for an art form.

So, tribe/clan/family unit are all pretty much synonymous – but there’s an inherent flaw in the way that most people view these terms. The problem is that they’re using a romantically charged view of a family unit or tribe. We’re conditioned as individuals to view families as some lovey-dovey unit that never disagrees. The reality of the situation, whether you like to admit it or not, is muuuuuch different.

Reality v.s Expectation

So, however you want to frame it, the reality of the situation is that the “metalheads are a family” comparison is very accurate. Anyone who feigns surprise that metalheads are going to argue is only kidding themselves (and clinging to a romanticized false notion of a family). It’s as natural as tribal warfare, sibling rivalry, or family feuds (those colloquialisms weren’t just plucked out of thin air).

The thing is, there’s another side to this. Besides all the bickering and feuding – there’s an unwritten rule that applies to both family members and metalheads. I’ll give an example – I’m the only person allowed to talk shit about my family. If anyone else does it, they get the business end of my entire fucking family.

It’s very similar with metal – and this isn’t just theory. Remember the PMRC hearings? Death metal and Thrash weren’t the direct target of that scandal – it was (predominantly) hair metal. Was Dee Snider left to fend for himself? Fuck no he wasn’t – because the only people who can bash hair metal are metalheads.

The same principle stands true today – if there was a large entity attacking heavy metal (using a metalcore or deathcore band as a scapegoat), they would meet with a much larger resistance than originally anticipated – because that’s how the metal machine operates (note – blackgaze isn’t metal so, assuming they managed to offend anyone, I personally would totally throw them to the wolves).

Conclusion

The infighting within metal culture is a good thing, and it’s totally natural. Granted, some of the bigger sites (that started as independent but have since become part of the pop machine) might egg it on for money and website traffic – but they’re not pulling conflict out of nowhere. It’s a natural expression of metal culture, and an acceptable form of participation that (among other things) creates an environment where competition is encouraged.

Competition in the metal scene creates better music.

Last I checked, that’s called winning.

I guess the message here is that newcomers to the metal community need take a step back so they can see the forest for the trees. Because Metal Culture fucking rules, infighting and all.

Heavy Metal and Christianity

All human social groups share certain characteristics – on a micro level (individual interactions) and on a macro level (large-scale group dynamics). For the purposes of this article, I could choose any large social group in the world – religious or otherwise. I chose to use Christianity for two reasons.

First, the rather tenuous relationship between Metal Culture and Christianity since February 13th, 1970, when Black Sabbath released their first album.

Second – heavy metal collectively has the largest and most loyal global fanbase of any style of music (at least according to statistics released by music streaming service Spotify). Considering Christianity has the largest following of any religion on earth, they’re probably the best point of comparison (i.e. the largest faith based and entertainment based communities in the world). And you might be shocked at the number of similarities between the two.

Please keep in mind this is an observational piece, and is by no means all-encompassing. On to the discussion.

Similarities:

Both are large-scale global “bricolage” cultures

Metal and Christianity are global phenomenons, with legions of dedicated fans/followers on every populated continent. Christianity and Heavy Metal transcend language and culture, as well as economic barriers.

Christianity broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Judaism) when the population base reached a critical mass. It later fractured into distinct branches (Orthodox, Catholic, then Protestant with Martin Luther), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-groups. The sheer number of different denominations is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Christianity.

Metal broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Rock and Roll) when the fan base reached a similar critical mass. It later fractured into two distinct branches (Mainstream and Underground/Extreme), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-genres. The sheer number of different sub-genres is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Heavy Metal.

Both Share Similar Spectrums of Adherence

In both Christian and Metal cultural groups there are spectrums of adherence that range from exclusive to inclusive (and everything inbetween). This is a natural occurrence – because as the population of a group increases, so does the number of different opinions within that group.

A good example would be the “real” or “true” member debates. Within Christianity, there is an ongoing discussion in terms of what constitutes a “real” or “true” Christian. A parallel can be seen in the whole “real” or “true” metalheads v.s. posers discussion. in other words, both cultures have their fair share of “infighting” over multiple definitions of adherence.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Why do we need all these subgenres? Why can’t we just call it all metal like we used to?” or something similar? Spend enough time on metal forums, Facebook groups, or with metalheads in general and you might notice it’s a rather common topic of discussion.

Interestingly enough, when discussing the relative diversity of Christianity with Christians I’ve heard similar sentiments (We don’t need all these different denominations/I don’t know why we can’t just call it all Christianity).

There is some merit to these arguments, because all sub-genres and scenes fall under the greater spectrum of Heavy Metal just like all protestant and catholic denominations fall under the greater spectrum of Christianity. So, they’re accurate – just not very specific.

Both are Historically Male-Dominated Cultures

Considering both Christian and Heavy Metal culture are derivatives of Western Culture (which is mostly male dominated) this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

There is a major difference here though – Christianity was systematically set up to exclude women from positions of power pretty much since it’s inception. A good example of that would be the taboo against female priests/pastors. Metal, however, is masculinist (as opposed to patriarchal).

So, while both social systems formed with predominantly male influence – in this instance the difference is a huge one. Within the church’s social structure – rules have to be changed to allow women to serve the culture in major roles such as a priest or pastor.

Heavy metal has no such restrictions. A women entering the metal scene simply has to navigate social norms that are traditionally considered to be masculine (I’m talking about the scene here, not the industry. All Western industry is patriarchal). The proof is in the pudding here, while the two systems may seem comparable, the end result(s) of the respective social structures for different genders can clearly be seen and differentiated.

Both Christianity and Heavy Metal Have Radical “Fringe Groups”

Both Christianity and Metal Culture have a few skeletons in the closet. Heavy Metal has such gems as National Socialist Black Metal and Hatecore (technically punk, like all of the “-core” derivations, but included here because of hardcore’s association with metal), while Christianity boasts the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and other Christian Identity groups.

“Fringe” hate groups in Metal

“Fringe” hate groups in Christianity

These fringe groups aren’t just about racism, anti-abortion violence in the United States and abroad generally has Christian undertones. And Heavy Metal has it’s own share of isolated, hate-filled violence. From the infamous church burnings and murders to instances of torture, it’s safe to say there are a few very seriously disturbed individuals on the fringes of the scene.

In both instances, the major block of the respective cultures renounce the violence of the fringe groups – but these events are so violent and atrocious it’s hard to separate them completely.

Both Have a “Ritual” Component

Sociologically speaking, a metal concert could be considered a ritual experience. Rituals aren’t limited to religious expression – for instance, shaking a person’s hand as a greeting is a common social ritual.

The metal concert is a ritual of heavy metal culture worldwide. Individual customs may vary based on location, for instance in the United States it’s generally considered taboo to wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see at a show (unless it’s a tour shirt purchased at the concert). However, in other areas of the globe this isn’t necessarily the case. Also, someone not familiar with the incredible variance of metal culture might not recognize that a Black Sabbath show and a Cannibal Corpse show are both considered to fall in the general realm of metal shows.

Likewise, a church sermon is a ritual of Christian culture worldwide. Traditions in American churches might seem foreign to those in Europe or elsewhere. Snake-handling is a tradition of some churches in the southern United States, while the custom wouldn’t be recognized anywhere else in the world. Someone not familiar with the relative diversity of Christianity might not recognize that a Russian Orthodox service and a Southern Baptist service both fall in the general realm of Christian ritual.

And in both cases, the end result of a successful “ritual” is the same – they solidify social bonds between participants.

Both Utilize an Atmosphere of Persecution to Solidify Their Respective Bases

This one’s kind of interesting – as both Heavy Metal and Christianity have a history of persecution. In fact, considering the universal symbol of Christianity is an instrument of torture used against the founder (the cross), one could argue that Christianity is based on a mindset of persecution. Likewise, the founder of heavy metal (Ozzy, through Black Sabbath) was publicly persecuted (granted, he wasn’t tortured and killed – once of the nice things about 2,000 years of cultural advancements, as an accusation of blasphemy has certainly led to public execution historically), most notably in his Suicide Solution trial in the 80’s.

Funny thing about a culture of persecution – it tends to solidify social bonds of the persecuted group and lend a universal sense of purpose through opposition of the invisible “other”. Metal bands and Priests/Pastors alike take advantage of this social mechanism rather liberally. I’m not saying it isn’t for good reason, in certain parts of the world Christians and Metalheads certainly are persecuted – and generally for the same reason. Because they both represent the spread of Western Culture in an area. Bearing this in mind, the tension between metal and christian cultures can be viewed in a different light.

Now, by definition these two groups aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a christian (or a member of any other faith) and still be a metalhead. So, why is it that so many christian groups are against heavy metal? And why are so many metal artists and fans so vehemently against the christian church?

Short answer – on a macro level they’re after the same thing… membership. They might phrase it differently – Christianity generally says it’s around to “save people’s eternal souls”, while metal is generally there to “free people’s minds” and “promote individual thought”. But at the end of the day, the results are the same. A church saving a person’s soul generally implies participation in christian culture, and by inference the spread of that culture. Likewise, heavy metal grabbing a person’s attention and getting them to think for themselves usually includes participation and perpetuation of metal culture.

They Both Utilize Horror Themes

At first glance, this might seem ridiculous. But if you really break down the components of “Hellfire Preaching” and compare them to death metal lyrics, you’re likely to find a common denominator in horror themes.

In both instances, this is a manifestation of a culture catering to the morbid interests of their bases. Because at the end of the day, there isn’t that much difference between talking about people being tortured eternally in hell and singing about torture in any other medium. In this light heavy metal and hellfire sermons can both be viewed as extensions of horror themed entertainment. Because let’s face it, people like to be scared.

Also, there’s this.

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The Two Faces of Metal

I was talking with my friend Raven from “The Vault of Metal” the other day about an interview with Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, in which he stated, “In my opinion, we actually kept metal alive.”

Now Raven (who isn’t alone in this opinion) contends that the “metal” as represented by bands like Linkin Park, Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot, and the like isn’t even metal. There are elements of this statement that I sort of agree with, but I have to respectfully disagree with the overall statement.

The reason I disagree is because I think there’s a more accurate way to look at the situation. Metal has two faces, a public (or mainstream) face and a private (or underground) face. This isn’t some new or revolutionary observation – it’s an argument that’s been going on since the genre fractured. It’s been covered by every single major metal sociologist; Deena Weinsteen (Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture and Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology), Robert Walser (Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music), Ian Christe (Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal), Malcolm Dome (The bible of Heavy Metal: Encyclopaedia Metallica, Thrash Metal), Keith Kahn-Harris (Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge), Sam Dunn (Metal: A Headbanger’s journey, Global Metal, Metal Evolution, Banger Films) in some form or another.

The reason that metal culture as a whole can have these opposing factions is because it isn’t a single, unified culture. It’s what’s commonly referred to as a bricolage culture – a hodgepodge collection of distinct groups and scenes with a unifying theme (metal) that form a complete culture.

For the purpose of this article, metal can be viewed like this;
twofaces

Both sides have their positive and negative aspects. An underground band has the ability to gain a significant amount of credibility within the scene, at the expense of a smaller fanbase. A mainstream band has the monetary advantage, as mainstream viability means you’re reaching a broader audience. However, the price of mainstream popularity comes at the expense of a band’s credibility within the broader metal scene. And in metal, credibility is everything.

Bands are not stuck in a single category, movement between these areas is fluid – but with a catch. They can only move in one direction. A mainstream band cannot under any circumstances move back to the underground. An underground band, however, has the ability at pretty much any point in time to move to the mainstream. There’s even a (often overused) term for when a band moves into mainstream territory – selling out.

To become popular, most underground bands tend to try and stay in the grey area between mainstream and underground – maximizing the size of their audience while sacrificing as little credibility as possible.

So, it’s not really a dichotomy. It’s more of a “collage spectrum” that’s defined by the polar extremes.

Cultural fracture point – when metal gained two identities

When metal actually fractured into these two distinct categories (mainstream and underground) is up for debate. The divide became recognizable when Thrash (underground) and Glam (mainstream) arose as two distinct entities in the 80’s. That’s when we got terms like “lite metal“, which were used by members of the underground community to refer to their mainstream counterparts.

Arguably, the divide between mainstream and underground metal goes back another generation. When Def Leppard refused to be associated with/included in the NWOBHM, band members stated it was because they wanted their band to be associated with the greater “hard rock” category (as opposed to the niche underground genre that NWOBHM was at the time). And if you look at the first wave of mainstream metal (Glam), you can clearly see it’s roots in the styles of both Def Leppard and Led Zeppelin.

I think it’s worth mentioning that bands that existed within the cultural sphere of heavy metal before the mainstream/underground fracture are immune to this classification. It was created to differentiate the new bands, and any attempt to use them as anything else would be inaccurate.

Metal in the Mainstream

mainstreamallica fan

 

It all started with Hair Metal/Glam in the 80’s, which combined metal with popular hard rock from the time period. And as with anything mainstream, hair metal was beholden to corporate influence. So when the music industry had completely exhausted the genre (through formulaic “clone” bands and over-promotion), they moved on to “the next big thing” and declared metal dead. So, in the eyes of mainstream culture – metal had died. And in it’s place was a new mainstream genre – Grunge.

Grunge was effectively the anti-thesis of hair metal. It’s combination of metal and alternative rock pushed apathy and mediocrity as a counterpoint to hair metal’s excitement and over the top excess.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that Glam and Grunge have in common is the incredible amount of heroin band members from both genres consumed. Which, in it’s own way, helped define their shelf lives. I guess every cloud has a silver lining.

Then in the mid 90’s a new mainstream contender entered the arena – Nu Metal. Combining rap with elements of alt-rock/grunge and heavy, down tuned riff oriented metal on (typically) seven string guitars. While musically much more aggressive and exciting than it’s predecessor, it remained a relatively simple and easily digestible form of metal that was fit for mass consumption and easily duplicated by the record industry.

The mid 2000’s saw the fall of Nu Metal and the rise of Metalcore. Taking the already established hardcore/metal fusion that had been mixing with the Gothenburg brand of Melodic Death Metal (and adding the signature whiney Emo vocals), metalcore took the mainstream by storm.

Nowadays, as metalcore is waning in popularity, bands like Periphery and Liturgy are crossing one of underground metal’s more extreme sub-genres (Black Metal) and mixing it with apathetic, “self absorbed posing as introspective” hipster Indie rock genres like Shoegaze  to create the musical abomination known as blackgaze. Combined with the large number of bands aping djent and mixing it with mainstream influences, it’s only a matter of time until we see the next big trend in popular metal.

I’m not sure where the fuck Five Finger Death Punch fits into all this, probably the fact that they mixed the groove metal of Pantera with mainstream hard rock. However you want to categorize them, calling them anything other than mainstream metal is a disservice to the intelligence of both the speaker and the listener.

Metal in the Underground

death-metal-bands
(This is where the magic happens)

Recently Thrash, Death, and Black metal have all been encompassed into an overarching umbrella term – Extreme metal. A fair description, as they all tend towards extremity. I like the term, and it puts all the bands in a proper context – all extreme metal is in some way shape or form a derivative of the thrash metal movement of the 80’s, although bands such as Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Venom (generally dubbed the “first wave” of black metal) also serve as the genre’s precursors. I’m pretty sure Keith Kahn-Harris does a better job explaining it all in his book. Also, Sam Dunn did an excellent crowdfunded “lost episode” of his series Metal: Evolution dealing with the subject.

Exceptions

While metal has been, since it’s inception, a predominantly underground phenomenon, when referring to “underground metal” people are generally talking about thrash and it’s derivatives. Like I mentioned earlier, this split happened after bands like Sabbath or Maiden hit the radar, so while they would fit the mold for underground metal – they also (by standing the test of time) fit into the mainstream metal category. They’re neither and they’re both.

It is interesting to note that in the vein of these classic bands, metal in the underground follows a generational musical progression that’s the only consistent pattern in heavy metal since it’s inception – the new stuff is always heavier. It’s harder, it’s faster, it’s more distorted, and it’s progressively more socially transgressive. Sam Dunn touched on this in his first movie, Headbanger’s Journey – new generations of bands continue to strive to sound heavier than the generation before them.

Conclusions

In context, Raven’s assertion that the “mainstream” metal bands aren’t metal at all is technically true. In every incarnation, the thing mainstream metal bands all have in common is that they dilute heavy metal by mixing it with a more “palatable” style of music. With hair metal, it was diluted with hard rock (including rock ballads, ugh). Grunge watered the heaviness down with popular college alternative rock. Nu Metal did it with rap and alt rock. Metalcore did it with emo. And modern day hipster bands do it with Indie rock (Indie meaning hipster/millennial co-opted melancholy, boring, crap rock – not indie as in independent… there’s a huge independent streak in underground metal).

Saying these mainstream bands “aren’t real metal” isn’t (generally) meant as an insult, it’s an attempt to keep accuracy in the conversation. Metal is generally viewed as genealogical, so an example of that ilk might bring some clarity.

If you breed a horse and a donkey together – the resulting creature is called a mule. It’s not a horse, and it’s not a donkey. The two animals are closely related and branch from the same evolutionary family, but distinct enough to warrant a different name for each distinct species. A mule, the resulting offspring from the union of the species, cannot accurately be called a horse or a donkey because it is equal parts horse and donkey. However if the mule proves fertile (most often they’re not) and is bred with another horse, the resulting offspring will be categorized as a horse.

Substitute “metal” for “horse”, and “rock” for “donkey”, and you essentially have the entire argument against “mainstream metal” being considered part of the metal family tree (instead being relegated back an evolutionary step to the “hard rock” category). If any of the mainstream/popular genres spawn/influence new music by being crossed back with metal genres – the result is considered to be part of the metal tree.

I always figured this sort of knowledge was just a given, but apparently it’s not. the massive amount of butthurt expressed online by hipsters and others outside the metal community when they’re improper use of terminology is corrected just seems to be part of the social landscape.

This duality within the genre is also the source of endless frustration expressed in memes like this gem…

girlswholistentometal

Now, as someone who was a pretty big fan of Nu Metal, I might be a tad biased in my opinion. I prefer a touch of holism with my definition of metal – while I’m predominantly a fan of the underground/extreme branch of the metal family tree, I refuse to discount the importance of mainstream metal bands to the culture.

First and foremost, they represent the social gateway into greater metal culture. Nobody starts off listening to Extreme Metal, taste progression in metal is generally a process – and “Gateway Metal” bands generally kick-start the process. They also represent the metal community to the mainstream in other respects.

When the PMRC kickstarted congressional hearings on heavy metal in the 80’s, they completely neglected to mention underground bands. It was Dee Snider of Twisted Sister who went and spoke for the genre, and completely exposed the entire debacle for what it was – a modern day witch hunt. Slipknot and Marilyn Manson (as well as Ozzy, Preist, and Maiden – but if you’ve been reading they’re excluded from this classification as they encompass both mainstream and underground characteristics) were publicly scapegoated as the reason behind public controversies. From grave robberies to school shootings, as soon as heavy metal is found in the mix it’s automatically considered the cause.

So, these aren’t just the people who recruit new member to the metal cause, they’re the ones who defend it in the public eye. They also transmit the norms of metal culture to new recruits. Considering these critical roles mainstream metal bands play in the overall culture, I don’t believe it is accurate to call them anything other than metal.

This doesn’t mean I won’t call a spade a spade, mainstream metal is gimmicky as hell and has a lot of elements of mainstream culture I generally try to avoid. But you can like, or at very least appreciate, a band and the role they play in overall culture without dismissing them because they A) fill a different cultural niche than underground bands and B) don’t conform to a minimalist definition of metal.

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