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The Monkey at the Metal Show

Disclaimer: I’m not pretending to be an expert in primate behavior (no matter how many times I watched the Harambe video), but it doesn’t take a fucking scientist to make these connections. 

“We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes.”
-Richard Dawkins

Intro:

Whether they’re fans of heavy metal or not, people writing about the music and it’s adherents like to mention that the music taps into something primal.

I think that’s an accurate description, but I don’t think it goes far enough. My question is this – what are these primal things that metal taps into?

Primal like how our ancestors developed a love for fire (based on it’s importance in our survival) – and this translates into our love of a good light show/pyrotechnic display at a live show?

Or maybe primal like our admiration of musicianship, which boils down to admiration of mastery over tools?

These are certainly interesting subjects, and by pretty much any definition of the word they’re primal in nature.

In a sense, we (sort of) selectively bred these sorts of qualities into the human race – a love of fire and an appreciation for the mastery of tools are things that have allowed our species to advance to the pinnacle of the food chain. But they’re things that we don’t necessarily share with other primates.

What I want to talk about are things that we inherited before that (not that it’s a contest, but the things that are arguably more primal). Which poses the question, “Can the goings-on at a metal show, including the love of metal itself, be explained by comparing human behaviors with those of our primate cousins?”

Personally, I think that using primate behavior as a critical lens puts a lot of behaviors and staples of metal culture in a very interesting light. I’m going to break this down into two main sections – primate behavior among metalheads on an individual level, and on a group level.

(While reading this, you might notice that a lot of these things are not exclusive to metal. You’d be right, however this particular combination of things is pretty unique in my experience.)

Section 1 – Primate Behaviors Among Metalheads on an Individual Level

1a) Displays of Dominance and Aggression

One of the defining characteristics (arguably THE defining characteristic) of any alpha creature in nature is dominance. It can be expressed in different ways, but is inherently recognizable.

The Alpha Male

(it can be argued the desire to get on stage and beat your chest has primal origins)

In any group that’s been populated by male primates (almost to the point of exclusively) since it’s formation, you’re going to encounter a lot of very male-oriented behaviors and norms. Chimpanzees are a good example.

Being a large group of predominantly male primates (as I’ve mentioned in other articles) – heavy metal has developed what’s referred to as a Masculinist Culture. In a nutshell, what that means is that metalheads (by and large) tend to not only practice but celebrate codes of behavior that are (predominantly) attributed to males.

For example – in any given social situation, a group of animals will establish a pecking order. The animal at the top of that pecking order is the alpha. If it’s a group of males, the most dominant in the group will be what we like to refer to as the “alpha male”.

Among primates, there is a very distinctive set of behaviors that typify dominance ( and therefore are associated with the label alpha male). Humans, as primates, fall into this group. As such, an alpha male human (like any other primate) will display many of the characteristics associated with dominant primates – especially in the presence of other males.

Size Matters – Alpha Posturing and Stress

Being visual creatures – the first indication of alpha status among primates is size. Alpha males are big. Big males generally dominate. Among gorillas, for example, it’s rather easy to pick out the alpha male of the group due to their being significantly larger than the rest of the group.

Now, among our closest relatives in the primate world (chimpanzees), the alpha male is NOT always the largest. However, they compensate for this in a number of ways. One, that is common among all primates, is something referred to as the “alpha stance”.

It’s so common among humans that you might not give it much thought, but every time you see someone standing with their feet planted and spread, with their arms raised so the upper portion of their body resembles the letter “V” (sometimes called the victory pose or v-pose) – what you’re seeing is a simian dominance posture.

One of the main purposes of the alpha stance is that it makes you look visibly larger – but it also raises testosterone levels by 20% while lowering cortisol levels by up to 25% in all primates, male and female.

Cortisol is the stress hormone, and testosterone is the male sex hormone (high levels of testosterone are associated with a higher levels of confidence). So, primates instinctively know that in certain situations there’s a hormonal “oh shit” button that calms you down and makes you more confident.

You’ll see this sort of posturing anywhere you go, but I would argue it’s more exaggerated and pronounced at a metal show (largely due to the gender demographics). I’d argue the stress relief (on both a chemical and a mental level) combined with the effects of the music has an almost addictive quality to it.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know I make a distinction between metal fans and metal heads. I guess this is as good of an explanation of the difference between the two as any; real metalheads are absolutely addicted to the catharsis provided by the metal experience.

It’s certainly not a unique phenomenon in and of itself, I’m sure lifelong Grateful Dead fans can attribute to that. But the experiences are a tad different – and I think metal has a much more universal appeal.

And I’m not just pulling that out of my ass, metal is literally the beast that refuses to die. And somehow, magically, there are more metalheads now than there were last year.

Gratuitous discussion of how metal is superior to all other genres? Check.

Volume and Pitch

A dominant primate is, quite often, a loud primate (This can be exaggerated in certain primates, where loudness is often a form of evolutionary compensation). And I think you’d be hard pressed to find a style of music that is consistently louder than metal. The bands are loud, the fans are loud.

And not just loud, but loud with low tones. A deep voice is automatically perceived as more authoritative among humans, and there’s a good evolutionary explanation for that. Low voices are associated with large males who produce a lot of testosterone. It’s been argued that the lowed timbre voices of male primates (including humans) equate to a display of dominance. And it makes sense, big dudes usually have deep voices – and a deep voice can be intimidating.

If you want an example of how innate our association of deep voices and sounds with large, intimidating males is – think of the first time you saw the boxer Mike Tyson.

tyson

Now, think of the first time you heard his voice. The reason his appearance and his voice seem so incongruous is our evolutionary association of deep sounds with big, threatening creatures.

So, it’s not really that much of a surprise that Heavy Metal is loosely defined as a musical style that emphasizes instrumentation with deep, low frequency sounds (i.e. bass guitar, drums, rhythm guitar) played very loud.

Appearance as an Aggressive Display

It would be rather remiss of me not to mention stereotypical metalhead appearance as an act of aggressive display.

It’s also worth noting that to someone within metal culture, this style of dress and posturing is not threatening at all, quite the opposite – it’s appealing.

But to someone outside of the metal sphere, generally the consensus is that metalheads look intimidating. And I don’t think that’s by accident, but I don’t think it’s entirely a conscious act. Like, I don’t think a group of guys got together and said, “hey, let’s look as threatening as possible.”

All aggressive displays look threatening (that’s what makes them aggressive). It’s interesting to note that, contrary to common sense, the point of looking threatening in nature is to avoid conflict.

In other words, I think the “metalhead uniform” a manifestation of visually threatening/intimidating displays that can be directly traced to primate behavior.  Camouflage, denim and leather, spikes and studs, boots and blue collar t-shirts all have one thing in common – they’re all worn by predominantly male social groups, that all look (in some way or another) masculine, and can appear threatening.

Chances are, all that clothing was introduced to metal culture by the crossover in membership – and if enough heads thought it looked cool they picked it up as a new norm.

Note: Not all displays within metal are aggressive. Perfect example, watch any metalhead youtube channel and you’ll notice they have their entire music collection situated behind them. This isn’t an accident, this is an intentional display of subcultural capital in the form of a music collection meant to impart a sense of expertise to the viewers.

Controlling Space and Attention

When a gorilla moves to an elevated area and beats his chest, he’s not just doing it to make himself feel good. He wants everyone in the vicinity to watch him. This isn’t a random occurrence – one of the resources that an alpha primate controls is the attention of his peers. In a pack setting, this is a big deal. It’s a form of social control.

Humans aren’t that different – why do you think public speakers will stand on a stage or an elevated platform? Or artists prefer to perform on a stage? We’re hard wired to pay more attention to other primates who control the high ground for a reason.

And it’s not just the high ground that’s important – another resource prized by primates is space. My favorite manifestation of this concept is the lead singer who, once the band is on stage, uses the all of the space available to him for the entire show. The more space he uses and controls, the bigger the display of dominance. Likewise, the easier it is to maintain the attention of a large crowd.

Even the act of throwing objects into the crowd (water bottles, picks, band shirts, etc) is a display of expanding territory – and fans who pick these items up are openly submitting to the display of dominance..

1b) Music Soothes the Savage Beast

“Interestingly, bonobo percussionists prefer a tempo of 280 beats per minute, the syllabic rate at which most humans speak.”
― Dr Susan Block

I would like to  point out an article (originally published in The Daily Telegraph, a British Newspaper internationally renown for it’s quality) I found regarding a little science project.

Long story short, they were testing to see what kind of music (if any) a specific species of monkey preferred over any other. The results showed that the Cottontop Tamarins only responded positively to two things…

  1. Recordings of other Cottontop Tamarins
  2. The Metallica song “Of Wolf and Man”

Awesome. Fucking awesome.

Anyways, I feel like it was worth mentioning that on both an individual and a group level certain types of music have a calming effect that can be traced back to the same types of calls that later evolved into speech.

Strange that metal music could have roughly the same psychological effect as a lullaby, but humans are pretty strange creatures.

Section 2 – Primate Behaviors Among Metalheads on a Group Level

I’d like to start by saying a lot of this stuff will be a tad more obvious to the casual reader than the items in the previous section. Some, however, might surprise you.

2a) Dominance and Aggression

I know, I know, this was covered in the last section. But dominance, while it may be expressed individually, is inherently a group phenomenon. One of the most obvious displays of dominance can be seen in the crowd at pretty much any metal show.

Nowadays most mosh pits are a sad parody of what they used to be. But the idea of a display of aggressive dominance is still there, no matter how pathetic it gets.

“Wow, that hardcore dancing is super-fucking cool.”

-No one, ever

2b) Group-Think and Belonging

Almost all primates are pack animals, and being a pack animal is a package deal. Part of that package is group-think, or the ability to function with other members of the same species as a cohesive unit.

The intrinsic motivation behind group behavior is a need for a sense of belongingness  (apparently that’s an actual word). Human beings, by nature, have an internal need to feel like a part of something bigger then themselves. It might manifest itself in different ways (family unit, church group, football team, metalhead), but at the end of the day it all boils down to this inner drive to belong to a group.

This is the same motivation behind all pack behavior. Gorillas have it, chimps have it, dogs have it, cows have it. You get the idea.

One of the ways group think manifests itself (in humans) is the establishment of social norms (I’ll expand on this in the next section). When confronted with an unfamiliar situation, humans look to and follow unspoken social ques of their peers to continue to feel like they fit in.

An obvious example of this would be “the metalhead uniform” – besides being a passive display of aggression to those outside the group, it functions as a badge of solidarity within the group.

And it works – being surrounded by other metalheads, all in black band shirts (at a concert or otherwise) feels good. You’re surrounded by other members of the group, and you’re all visibly displaying membership. It’s no longer a matter of, “I’m doing this and you’re doing this” – it’s become a matter of, “we’re doing this.”

This is why, when a person is attending their first metal concert and asks you what they should wear – you should never tell them, “Whatever you want, metal has no rules.”

That friend isn’t asking you what they’re required to wear. Obviously, they can wear whatever the fuck they want. They’re asking if there are any social norms they can/should follow to feel like part of the group (and not stand out). You know, so they can experience that sense of belonging and – in turn – have a better overall experience.

2c) Transmission of Culture

When most people hear the word culture, they think of fancy learned human behaviors transmitted socially, both generationally and through multiple generations. But that’s the thing – all culture really boils down to is learned behaviors passed on to others. There’s actually a saying that covers this phenomenon – monkey see, monkey do. And while it’s always used to describe primate behavior, it’s rarely used to describe apes in the wild.

human see human do

Since the 1950’s the concept of culture in the animal kingdom has been a topic of research, and it’s been found that culture is not limited to humans. Quite the opposite – patterns of learned behavior transmitted between individuals within social groups is actually common in the animal kingdom, especially among primates.

“Being abroad makes you conscious of the whole imitative side of human behavior. The ape in man.”
-Mary McCarthy

So, what sorts of cultural behaviors do metalheads transmit?

Headbanging

One of the most universally recognized behaviors associated with metalheads is headbanging.dimebag

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes zero sense. Zero. There is literally nothing beneficial that can happen to you if you headbang.

Quite the opposite, neck and back pain and injury are common (there’s even a colloquial term for the neck pain that follows a day of headbanging – a “bangover”). Over the long term – spinal degeneration is almost a certainty. I know plenty of old dogs who have neck and back problems due to this – some that required surgery. And in extreme cases, brain damage can occur. But for some reason, the practice continues.

Not that I’m complaining – I’m just pointing out that this particular behavior seems to defy nature AND common sense.

Conformity through Non-Conformity

Oooh, the 500 pound gorilla in the room. This one goes out to all the people who say that metal has no rules (it does). When you’ve got a large group of people who practice and encourage non-conformity, guess what happens.

You, by definition, have conformed to non-conformity.

People who say metal has no rules seem to be missing the point – one of the rules of metal is that you don’t have to pay attention to all the rules. That’s why you can do whatever you want and still feel like part of the group. So even if you only follow that one stipulation – you’re still following the rules.

Just because metal celebrates a lack of conformity with mainstream ideals/etc doesn’t mean there are no rules. That’s fucking retarded – all social animals have rules.

Metalheads are humans, humans are social animals, therefore metalheads have rules. That’s what makes them social – when you’re in a group it restricts the number of acceptable individual behaviors.

mind blown

Metalhead Uniform as Social Norm

personal rant: I can’t tell you exactly who will say metal has no rules, but I can tell you what they look like.

Specifically, they’re a Caucasian male between the ages of 16 and 50, wearing a black band t-shirt (of a band they listen to, obviously). They’re wearing khaki shorts/ camouflage pants/jeans and probably boots.

metalheads for real

There’s a really good chance they’ve got multiple tattoos and/or piercings, and I’d be willing to wager they have either long hair or a beard (if not both). There’s also about a 25% chance they’re wearing (or own) a patch covered vest.

metalheads for real a

Bonus points if they’re rocking a mjolnir necklace, razor blade pendant, chains, dog tags, satanic jewelry, or some less than subtle combination of these things.

You know how I know this? Because the people who scream “metal has no rules” the loudest are the people who follow the social conventions of the culture the most strictly.

I don’t think they do it to be purposefully misleading, they honestly believe what they’re saying. The cognitive dissonance is real (bowing to social pressure and following group norms is something that’s been observed in chimpanzees, and humans are certainly not above it). Simply put, humans are wired to make and follow rules of behavior. What rules you choose to follow, however, is certainly up to you.

Exclusive Handshakes and Gestures

Believe it or not, individual groups of chimpanzees have their own versions of secret handshakes. Not all of them have it, but the ones that do have a very interesting shared characteristic – it differs between different groups (therefore a learned behavior) and seems to hold significance in the group.

What kind of significance, you ask?

Good fucking question. These secret handshakes actually signify and affirm membership in the corresponding group.

And while it’s not exactly a handshake, a learned hand gesture that signifies membership/participation in a group is nothing new to metalheads.

Throwing the horns is a logical progression of the original behavior – directly observable in primates in the wild.

Crazy, right? There’s a little conjecture there, but I really don’t think it’s a big leap.

“Hating on” the Younger Generation

I read somewhere that chimpanzees withdraw and stop making social connections with the younger generation after a certain point. This includes not learning new “social norms”, etc.

Yeah, male apes turn into grumpy old men. Kind of like how older metalheads (myself included) complain about modern metal and metalheads.

It’s perfectly natural social behavior when you put it into context. In fact, I’d be more worried if old metalheads didn’t complain.

Conclusion

We’re all just fucking apes. I’m an ape, you’re an ape, your mom’s a fucking ape. So technically all human behavior is primate behavior – and that includes the entire metal scene.

Afterward

I thought it’d be cool to look at some of our behaviors that have been around since before shit like fire, microwaves, and pizza delivery existed.

There’s no way on earth I covered everything, but I like to think I offered up a good chunk of thinking material for you guys.

I haven’t posted anything in a while, so I figured an article with a little more substance to it was in order.

Thanks for reading, keep it brutal.

-Grulog

 

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Metal Stuff’s 2016 Review: The Year in Metal

2015-2016 has been an unprecidentedly good time for metal. We’re in the middle of a “metal bubble”, the market is saturated with excellent material. Not sure how long it’ll last, but (seeing as there isn’t anything really incredible slated to release in December) I thought it would be a good time to sum up Metal Stuff’s best releases and biggest dissapointments in metal: 2016 Edition.

Metal Stuff’s “Top  15” Best Releases of 2016

15) Vivaldi Metal Project – The Four Seasons

vivaldi

This one hit me out of nowhere. I saw something about the release of the album on facebook, checked it out, and BAM. Blown away. Probably one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve experienced this year.

It’s an all-star lineup of metal musicians in a modern (and metallic) interpretation of Antonio Vivaldi’s masterpiece “The Four Seasons”. And by All-Star I mean they have members of Symphony X, Testament, Unleash the Archers, The Scorpions, Helloween, Within Temptation, Stratovarious, Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Soilwork, and a whole fuckload more.

I really can’t say enough good things about these guys, this is a piece I would reccomend to metalheads, fans of classical music, and just about evreyone inbetween.

14) Scorched – Echoes of Dismemberment

scorched

I first heard this album through my side gig doing reviews for Hard Attack Magazine.  No bells, no whistles, no frills. Just excellent (old school style) death metal with horror b-movie samples. If you’re into old school death metal – be sure to pick up a copy.

13) Rob Zombie – The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser

zombie-electric-warlock

Have to admit, I was pretty eagerly anticipating this album. I participated in the crowdfunding effot they put forth to make the album happen, I went and saw them live twice in the year leading up to it’s release. And I wasn’t dissapointed one bit.

This is easily his best work since “Hellbilly Delux”, and while he hasn’t completly strayed from the hard rock sound, the band certainly went in a more metallic direction. This is the first album the band’s put out in years that I can listen to from start to finish without skipping a single track. If you’re a Zombie fan, you won’t be dissapointed.

12) Blasphemer – Ritual Theophagy

blasphemer

Kick ass album, read my full review here. Brutal Italian tech death that doesn’t sacrifice on the low end (or become riff-salad). Very highly recommended, this album melts faces.

 

11) Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

insomnium_wintersgate

Sooooooo fucking good. Adding layers of atmosphere to melodic death metal seems like a pretty big risk, but these guys took it and the result was (in this author’s humble opinion) a huge fucking success. I would go so far as to say this is the Melo-Death version of the album Opeth should have released. I’ve always liked the band, but they were never really at the forefront of my musical collection. This album changed that a bit, I’ll be keeping an eye on these guys now for sure.

Proggy and ambient, while still managing to retain the soul of melodic death metal – I highly recommend this album to anyone who will listen. And a few people who won’t.

10) The Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

devin_townsend_project_-_transcendence

I’ve been a fan of Devin Townsend’s work for over a decade now, but I had never given this side-project of his a listen before this year. And I’m glad I finally did, the man’s a fucking genius. His mix of electronic/ambient music and metal is flawless. Transcendence is a fucking masterpiece from start to finish.

9) Anciients – Voice of the Void

anciients-voice

This album was another pleasant surprise for me in 2016. They ran an (apparently) successful Facebook advertising campaign for months before the album released – so when it dropped that whole “name brand recognition” thing they talk about in advertising took effect. I checked them out just to see, and boy am I glad I did.

Excellent prog metal that ranges from melancholy to borderline brutal, with cleans and screams for days. I’ll be adding this album to my vinyl collection shortly after the holiday season ends (when I actually have money again).

These guys fucking rule.

8) Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason

meshuggah-the-violent-sleep-of-reason

This one was no surprise, I’ve been listening to these guys for about 2 decades now (since Destroy, Erase, Improve was released in 1995).

I have to admit, I was nervous about this one. I’m not a huge fan of Koloss or Catch 33, and I thought there was a good chance they’d continue in the “artsy” direction of concept albums and slow songs. Boy was I wrong, this is a return to Chaosphere-level heaviness.

I think some of their marketing strategies were a little campy (a delux edition of the album that includes a vinyl mask?), but as far as I’m concerned this album was pure fucking gold.

7) Saor – Guardians

saor-guardians

Admittedly, I have some very strong (and sometimes conflicting) opinions when it comes to the style of black metal known as “post black metal”. I’m hesitant to embrace “post” anything, and (at least in the US) the post-black metal scene is nothing but a bunch of whiny hipsters aping black metal music to seem edgy, when in reality all they’re doing is playing shitty alt-rock with a few black metal elements thrown in.

Saor, to me, embodies the exact opposite of this. It’s a solo project hailing from Scotland, and let me tell you this guy is a fucking artist. He’s the real deal, and a wicked cool guy to boot. He nails the black metal aesthetic and combines it with traditional celtic instruments to create soundscapes that are melancholy and ambient, without sacrificing some of the pure fucking rage at the heart of real black metal.

This guy is pretty much single-handedly responsible for making me redefine what I consider “heavy music”. Nothing but good things to say about this band, and this album simply cements him as a consistently solid and groundbreaking artist.

6) Wormed – Krighsu

wormed-krighsu

This album will rip you a new asshole. Then it will rip your new asshole a new asshole. I think you can see where I’m going with this. By the end of the album you’ll be shitting yourself out of your asshole’s asshole’s asshole.

This album doesn’t let up for a goddamn second. Full on brutal tech-death. Who the fuck knew Spain could produce (basically) the perfect death metal band? Holy fuckshit. I want to buy two copies of this album – one to listen to and the other to leave unopened for posterity. I’ll be telling my fucking grandchildren about how brutal these guys are.

So fucking good.

5) Infant Annihilator – The Elysian Grandeval Galèriarch

ia-cover

Yo dawg, I heard you like blastbeats. So we put blastbeats on your blastbeats.

In all seriousness, no human on earth has any business playing as fast as the drummer does. This British teen duo actually makes deathcore tolerable. Scratch that, enjoyable. Not quite as good as their first album, but still one of the best albums this year.

4) Fallujah – Dreamless

fallujah-dreamless

Not going to front like I’m some O.G. who’s been listening to them since “Harvest Wombs” – I came across this band by chance right after their previous album, “The Flesh Prevails”, was released. I was just surfing YouTube and liked the album artwork (Totally a valid way of finding new music, it’s scary how good YouTube has become in recommending things you might like). I didn’t listen to anything else for a week, and turned a few of my coworkers on to the band.

When I heard they were releasing a new album I was super fucking stoked, and I wasn’t dissapointed. Every track is pure fire, and I still listen to this album at least once a week. I love the fact that they retained the ambient/brutal sound while making sure that each album has it’s own unique sound, atmosphere, and identity. Easily one of my favorite bands period.

3) Sabaton – The Last Stand

sabaton_the_last_stand

I’ve been a fan of this band since I was street teaming for Nuclear Blast pre-2006, and I have to admit I find it pleasantly odd/surprising that a band I’ve listened to for years is becoming as popular as they are. Sabaton is easily the fastest rising band in metal, and they deserve it. These guys are relentless road dogs, with a solid live show. The fact that you learn more about history from a Sabaton show than you do in an entire year of public school in America is just the icing on the cake.

Plus, they wrote a song about the Scottish battle of Bannockburn (that pays tribute to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce) – what’s not to love?

2) Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign

dark-funeral-album

These guys are hands down my favorite black metal band. Every album they release is consistent while remaining stylistically fresh and distinct. “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is, in my opinion, their best material to date – and they’re gaining a lot of well deserved international attention because of it. This includes their fair share of controversy – earlier this year they garnered a lot of attention due to members of a local Romanian government announcing they would allow a church-based political group to vet which bands would be allowed to play in the area (in direct violation of the Romanian constitution). This was a direct response to Dark Funeral’s show at Bucovina Rock Castle.

I don’t think a lot of people realize that bands like Dark Funeral and Behemoth are bastions of free speech in that part of Europe, as many Eastern European countries are firmly in the grip of a very conservative church (the Russian Orthodox Church, especially, seems to be radically motivated against heavy metal music).

Even without all the controversy – this is a solid fucking album that I listen to with some regularity. Lord Ahriman is a fucking musical genius.

1) Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake

testament-brotherhood-of-the-snake

Easily the best album release this year. Probably the one I anticipated the most, my full review of the album can be found here. Heavy metal isn’t a contest, but if it was Testament would be winning. I’ll just sum my thoughts on this album up from the first paragraph of my review;

“The “Thrash Revival” has been in full effect since 2015 – it seems like every major player from the Bay Area Thrash scene is back in the studio pumping out the jams. Testament stands out among these giants – delivering, hands down, the best Thrash release of 2016. In fact, I think ‘Brotherhood of the Snake’ deserves a nomination for the best metal album of 2016, period. Considering how good ‘Dark Roots of the Earth’ was, I had high hopes for Testament’s new album. Brotherhood of the Snake not only met my expectations – it exceeded them (and then some)!”

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Abbath – Abbath (huge fan of the guy, not as good as his work in Immortal)
  • Megadeth – Dystopia (This album made me a fan of Megadeth)
  • Fleshgod Apocalypse – King (Criminally underrated band, excellent release)
  • Rotting Christ – Rituals (Not their best work, but really quite good)
  • Killswitch Engage – Incarnate (Second album with Jesse Leach back on vocals, fantastic album!)
  • Otep – Generation Doom (has a few good songs, but has some stiff competition this year for best album)
  • Aborted – Retrogore (these guys never put out a bad album)
  • Hatebreed – Concrete Confessional (If you’ve heard one Hatebreed album you’ve heard all of them – good but not great)
  • Dead by Wednesday – The Darkest of Angels (Love these guys – from the same scene as Shadows Fall)
  • Death Angel – The Evil Divide (excellent and diverse Thrash album)
  • Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us (Quite the pleasant surprise this year)
  • Be’lakor – Vessels (Good melodeath, if a little bit stereotypical of the genre)
  • Brain Drill – Boundless Obscenity (Jesus Christ, so good)
  • Despised Icon – Beast (Triumphant return of a deathcore band that doesn’t suck)
  • Running Wild – Rapid Foray (These guys are legend)
  • Sodom – Decision Day (German Thrash, awesome album)
  • Vader – The Empire (Pure gold)
  • Starkill – Shadow Sleep (I helped crowdfund the album, was not disappointed one bit)
  • In Flames – Battles (Had a few good songs, better than their last album)
  • Metallica – Hardwired to Self Destruct (They set the bar so low for the past 30 years that even a sub-par thrash album is praise worthy)
  • Avantasia – Ghostlights (just good fun!)
  • Anthrax – For all Kings (hooray for thrash revival!)
  • Entombed A.D. – Dead Dawn (death’n’roll done right)
  • Lacuna Coil – Delirium (Surprisingly good)
  • Gojira – Magma (Good, but not my favorite)
  • Amon Amarth – Jomsviking (Awesome album, but not quite good enough to make my top 15)

 

Metal Stuff’s Biggest Disappointments in Metal, 2016 edition

Devildriver – Trust No One

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Considering the lineup changes DevilDriver went through in 2015, I tried to give this album a little wiggle room when criticizing it. 2 guitarists, no bassist, half the band is green. They didn’t really have time to get together and synchronize as a band – this album sound to me like a record company rushed them to meet a deadline. It’s not bad, but to call it anything other than a disappointment would be disingenuous. I hold DevilDriver to a pretty high standard – Dez is a goddamn genius as far as metal is concerned. I hope their next album will be a little better.

Robb Flynn

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This fucking guy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Machine Head – and their album from last year (Bloodstone and Diamonds) was fucking excellent. I just can’t take Robb Flynn seriously. He’s a fucking attention whore who tries to stay socially relevant and apes Corey Taylor to do so. He’s an mildly successful social chameleon at best, and an overreacting turncoat bitch at the worst. His treatment of Phil Anselmo in the media was fucking horrid.

Avatar – Feathers and Flesh

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Maybe I was hoping for “Hail the Apocalypse Part II”, but this album fell flat for me. Which sucks, because they’re a very cool band who’s been underrated for the majority of their career. This album just didn’t clique for me, there wasn’t one song I can honestly say I enjoyed – just a massive disappointment.

Solution .45 – Nightmares in the Waking State II

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I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this album just didn’t feel right to me. Like, maybe it was a bit too rushed or under-produced. Which sucks, because Christian Älvestam is my favorite metal vocalist – the guy’s easily the hardest working man in metal and super talented. From Scar Symmetry to Svavelvinter, Torchbearer, Miseration, Quest of Aidence, and all the fucking songs he’s lent vocals to – this guy is the fucking man. He shits excellence, except this album. I feel like he should have spent a little longer perfecting the songs, and not rushing to release a double album.

Whitechapel – Mark of the Blade

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It’s sad to see a halfway decent band on the downswing of their career. They tried to stay relevant by releasing a song bashing “metal elitists”, and ironically that’s what seems to have tanked their career. Maybe the elitist ones were correct.

Chelsea Grin – Self Inflicted

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Bands like this are the reason I despise Deathcore. They have one tolerable album, and if I’m completely honest it’s only 50% tolerable (the first half).

Steel Panther

I’d rather let this speak for itself.

Sumerian Records

From every single band on their roster, to the act of completely selling out the image of the Summer Slaughter tour to sell a movie starring the lead singer of the Blackveil Brides, the continued existence of Sumerian Records bothers me. Apparently, in the metal scene money = credibility in some circles. Puke.

Hipsters and Social Justice Warriors

I don’t make it a secret that I fucking hate hipsters. They seem to have the innate ability to ruin anything. I can’t wait till hipster metal is no longer a thing.

Opeth – Sorceress

opeth_sorceress_promocover_revised

I respect when an artist or band wants to branch out, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Opeth has earned the right to do whatever the fuck they want, but that won’t stop me from getting my hopes up (and consequently having them dashed on a rock to the point of near death) every single time they get ready to release a new album. The band even signed to Nuclear Blast and were allegedly down-tuning for the record. I was so hyped. I heard the first single, “Sorceress” – SO EXCITED! Then the album dropped, and what transpired afterwards can only be referred to as one of my biggest disappointments of 2016. Fucking artsy prog from a band that had (at it’s peak) some of the best fucking death metal vocals ever.

The Dio Hologram

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Christ, stop capitalizing on the metal god. For fucks sake, he’s dead. Let him rest. It sounds cool, but I really dislike the idea.

As opposed to the Lemmy hologram at the Rainbow that randomly offers you cocaine and compliments your appearance when you walk by. That’s probably the most fitting tribute ever.

So, that’s about it for 2016 in metal.

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.

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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.

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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.

Behemoth’s Poznan Concert a Major Victory for Free Speech in Poland

Metal culture is a global phenomenon that generally transcends nationalistic borders, and as an American Metalhead I like to stay as informed as possible about global attitudes and trends regarding heavy metal.

For example, I’ve written on the illegal promise of a local government to allow the Roman Orthodox Church in Romania to “approve” what bands are allowed to play in the country. This promise was in direct violation of Romania’s constitution – and the government’s silence is the equivalent of supporting this sort of discrimination. Not OK. And small decisions like this have greater cultural implications – if you allow a non-governmental entity to determine governmental policy (including disbursement of public funds), you’re allowing that non-governmental group to make governmental decisions

This is where a recent political decision from Poland comes into play. Since roughly 2007, religion-based political groups have been petitioning the Polish government to ban a list of musical groups they deem satanic from playing in the country. This list included Polish natives Behemoth.

Around the same time, Behemoth front-man Nergal controversially destroyed a bible onstage during a show, and criminal charges were filed against him (I think it’s safe to say there’s no love lost between Polish religious groups and Behemoth). The ensuing court cases stretched over a number of years (until around 2012 I believe), and the last I checked he was acquitted. No surprise – after all, he’s kind of a big deal in Poland.

Then in 2014, a scheduled show in Poznan, Poland was cancelled due to vague “safety concerns”. Nergal rightfully called out the actions of those in power for what they were – political maneuvering to placate religious fundamentalists while avoiding controversy. Article 73 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland guarantees freedom of artistic creation and scientific research, as well as free access to cultural goods. The real violation of civil rights was not perpetrated by Behemoth, but by the church against the band and their fans.

protestors

Enter 2016 -Bogdan Freytag, chairman of the religious protest group “Faithful Poland”, petitioned Poznan’s Mayor (Jack Jaśkowiak) in the hopes of preventing Behemoth from playing yet again. Considering the incredible amount of legal power these religious groups have wielded against the band, I feel it was a bold move in the right direction for the president of the country to allow the concert to happen. Behemoth seems to think so too.

freedom-in-art

At this point you might be asking yourself, “Why is this important?” Well, simply put, it sets an example for other countries in Eastern Europe in favor of free speech, even if that speech offends the church. Which (from what I gather) is a concept that hasn’t fully taken hold in the area.

Essentially, Poland has done exactly what Romania should have done. Because if you look closely, there’s a pattern here – religious groups exercising their constitutional rights in a country for the express purpose of denying those same rights to a large segment of the population. It happened in Poland in 2007, and it took almost a decade to undo the damage. That’s why it’s important to put a spotlight on small local governments making seemingly innocuous concessions to religious groups (or any protest groups) – because those decisions set a legal precedent with far reaching legal implications.

So, in the greater scheme of things – Behemoth’s ability to finally play in Poland is a victory for free speech (and metal).

Musical Fission and Fusion: A Response

First and foremost, I feel the need to thank a peer and comrade at arms in the ongoing quest for intellectual discourse and discussion in the arena of metal and heavy music. Hornsofaradia wrote an excellent article detailing arguments for the inclusion of rock music in the metal family tree. Thank you very much for the kind words – I hope to continue to live up to them.

Rock v.s. Metal

So, this is a rather large topic to tackle – and I guess the best place to start is the beginning. I don’t believe there is a way to accurately include all of rock and roll into the metal family tree because of the incredible amount of diversity between the two genres.

They’re unique and distinct, with some areas that overlap. For example – it’s a genre that includes bands like Ghost, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, and Disturbed. Every single one of these bands has been referred to as a “metal” band at some point in their career – in fact the latter three self identified as metal until what is commonly referred to as the “New Wave of American Heavy Metal”. At this point there was a mass shift in the collective mainstream musical consciousness, and these bands were “relabeled” as hard rock. It was a slow process – and if you weren’t really paying attention it was easy to miss. An argument can be made, at the very least, that they all (to some degree or another) play what could be referred to as “metallic hard rock” or “hard rock with metal influences” – this is an area where the relative fluidity of genre labels can be a bit frustrating. Whatever you want to call them, there is at least a little bit of metal in the DNA of these bands.

On the flip-side you’ve got bands like Coldplay, Radio Head, Nickelback, The White Stripes, and other bands that have exactly zero overlap with metal – culturally or sonically. These are bands and cultures that are completely dependent on the music industry, and are more akin to pop (and other artificial art forms) than they are to metal.

Then there’s Metallica’s “Black Album”. If we were to include rock into the heavy metal family – it would negate the premise that Metallica sold out when they made that album. The big problem people had with that album is that Metallica was playing hard rock (and had abandoned metal). This, by itself, to me illustrates the relative difficulty of accepting rock into the metal fold. Actually, this scenario would perfectly illustrate the analogy of fission v.s. fusion. With fission – a large amount of energy is released – but it’s nothing compared to the destructive force of fission. The amount of negative energy released just in the realm of Metallica discussions would probably break the internet.

Regarding the Current State of Rock Music

You know, it’s funny. Hornsofaradia actually broached a few topics I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while now (with the intent of blogging my thoughts on them in the indefinite future). The current lack of a market in the rock category (specifically hard rock) and the reasons for it is a major one, as well as related topics (i.e. what caused it, what will happen to rock culture moving forward, etc).

Essentially, I think what made rock so huge ended up being it’s downfall. The relative simplicity coupled with incredible marketability made it a staple of the music industry. The inherent bureaucracy of the industry essentially slit the throat of rock and roll and slowly bled it out for all it was worth. This combined with the current trend of the “indie” rock bands playing feeble, weak, boring music and labeling it as rock are – in my opinion – why you don’t see a lot of “up and comers” playing straightforward, hard hitting rock music.

Metal Culture’s Silent Support of Rock

There are a number of reason I think that there shouldn’t be too much concern about the current state of rock.

First and foremost – as I outlined in my post about the two faces of metal, there is a certain vein of the metal community that already considers “mainstream” metal nothing more than hard rock. There is a lot of validity to this argument – especially when you look at it in terms of generations of music listeners.

Today’s “mainstream” metal is tomorrow’s rock and roll. Hair Metal, Grunge and Alternative, and a lot of Nu-Metal bands (including but not limited to Disturbed, Godsmack, The Deftones, and Linkin Park) were considered heavy metal while the scenes were active. However, in retrospect these are the bands currently on rotation on mainstream hard rock radio stations. I contend that these patterns will hold true in the future – and bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Deafheaven, Liturgy, and the like will be relegated to the “rock” category as time passes.

In regards to the cultural impact of rock music – I do agree that the position of societal rebellion formerly held by rock music has been usurped by metal. This, I think, is the greatest connection metal has to rock music. When compared to most metal, rock music seems rather tame – in large part because it has been tamed by embracing the music industry. Not entirely – but metal continues to push the envelope (musically, lyrically, etc) while rock and roll stands still and stagnates.

So, in regards to a lack of a viable pool of bands to be inducted into “rock royalty” – the model has changed since the 90’s. Most rock bands aren’t initially considered rock bands anymore. They’re referred to under the umbrella term of “hard rock and metal” put forth by the record industry.

Why is this? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Partly because people from previous generations won’t accept newer “rock music” being categorized in the same group as Zepplin and Hendrix. Partly because mass perception of rock music (especially in the USA) is predominantly neutral to negative. People would rather identify as listening to metal than rock in most cases. I fucking hate it, personally.

Guns and Roses aren’t metal, Nirvana isn’t metal, Motley Crue barely makes the cut, Avenged Sevenfold aren’t metal, Disturbed and Godsmack aren’t metal, Rob Zombie kind of strides that line between rock and metal (but most of his stuff is just hard rock), KISS isn’t metal. These are all hard rock bands that were considered “metal” by the mainstream at the peak of their careers and their respective music scenes. Of course, my definition of metal is the music that, even 30 years later, won’t make it to mainstream radio. You’re never going to hear “Raining Blood” on KROCK, or any Slayer for that matter. So I’m not saying it to be mean, or an “elitist” in the derogatory sense that most people use it – I’m saying this because once a mainstream’s “metal” phase has panned out they get relegated to hard rock. This, as a rule, has held true since the fragmentation of metal culture in the 80’s (and in scattered instances beforehand – it’s hard to categorize metal bands before the thrash/glam split because they’re still very closely associated to hard rock).

So, in this sense, metal has been silently keeping rock and roll on life support for over 30 years. Every generation or so the “gateway bands” (mainstream metal) are used as an organ transplant to keep the hard rock machine alive and ticking (along with legions of new fans who never progress to the harder stuff) – while metal reaps the benefits of an ever expanding base.

Moving Forward – the Future of Rock and Metal

Also, kind of an interesting aside is metal artists who have hard rock side projects. This seems to be more of a European phenomenon (I notice they make much less distinction between rock and metal, or at very least embrace a ridiculous amount of diversity on a tour/festival ticket). Bands like the Gentleman Pistols (with Bill Steer from Carcass) or Spiritual Beggars (Michael Amott, ex-Carcass/currently in Arch Enemy) demonstrate metal artists love of rock. Labels like Nuclear Blast have a strong rock catalog, and continue to sign new rock artists from around the globe.

So, while I understand (and agree with) your concern regarding the apparent death of rock and roll – I think it might be helpful to take a step back and look at musical patterns throughout history. The industry has raped and pillaged hard rock for decades – so there is a necessary “incubation period” where rock and roll needs to go back underground and reform as an organic culture. It happened with metal – after the “thrash revolution” extreme metal went almost fully underground (with a few bands like Pantera carrying the flag through the 90’s) for nearly a decade. It re-emerged, slowly at first, with the “New Wave of American Metal” – which in turn sparked a metal revival. We’re still feeling the effects of this revival – with a lot of the classical forms (death, doom, black, classic, etc) experiencing revivals across the world. I hope rock will experience a similar pattern of revival – but even if it doesn’t, they get to draft a new swath of yesteryear’s mainstream “metal” bands into the fold with regularity.

Considering the often symbiotic relationship between hard rock and metal, I don’t think metal culture will ever allow rock to die out completely. Something a lot of people don’t talk about is the fact that becoming a metalhead is a multi-faceted process, not just a black and white event. You don’t just pick up a CD and suddenly become a metalhead – (almost) nobody starts off listening to Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth. You start off with rock, and eventually that doesn’t “do it” for you any more. Then you step up to hard rock, and get a taste of mainstream metal bands. I call this the “coffee drinker” model – you start off with a lot of sweetener and (generally) lower levels of caffeine, and then over time you adjust and start drinking stronger coffee – until eventually you’re drinking double-stuff black coffee with a shot of espresso.

In this sense, rock and metal will always be linked – because you have to start somewhere.

Conclusion

In keeping with the elderly relative analogy – I completely understand the comparison to with rock and metal. And I agree wholeheartedly with the components of the analogy. Rock, for all intents and purposes, is the elderly parent of metal – and is in trouble right now. But I disagree with the concept of needing to adopt the parent on a few levels.

First, I think that the baggage that comes along with rock music (fanbase, relationship to mainstream media, etc) is more than metal will allow – in fact, it’s a big part of the reason they split off in the first place.

Secondly, I think it’s a disservice to the inherent dignity of rock music. Like a proud, accomplished parent – the inherent independence of rock music is one of the qualities that keep it going. And for metal to adopt it into the fold would be to remove this sense of independence and dignity, and in the process would accomplish the exact opposite of the original goal. It would make rock music completely dependent on metal culture.

Like relatives that don’t get along (mostly because they’re so similar) – I think metal and rock are akin to family members who occasionally badmouth each other in public, but maintain a subtle relationship. Rock keeps sending new fans to the metal scene, while metal silently supports rock in subtle ways that allow rock to save face and retain a semblance of independence. If rock needed an organ transplant, metal would be the mysterious “anonymous donor” – they’ll save rock and roll, but won’t take the credit for it. Thus, the relationship can be viewed as a form of mutualism – a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties (as opposed to parasitism, which I feel would be likely to happen with the induction of rock into the metal family tree).

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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Why are Hard Rock and Metal Artists Suddenly Drawn to Country Music?

 

At first glance, this might seem like an odd phenomenon. In their current states, country and metal are polar opposites. And research into the personality type/musical preference connection clearly shows that fans of heavy metal have far more in common with fans of classical music than fans of country. But, the more you look at it, the more it makes sense that there would be a mini “exodus” from metal music to country. And, arguably, it’s a good thing for both genres and their fans.

 

Background

First and foremost, it needs to be mentioned that country and metal music share a common ancestor in the blues. Early rock and roll acts and early country acts were almost interchangeable – for example, Johnny Cash and Elvis toured together. Elvis is commonly referred to as the godfather of rock and roll (of which heavy metal is a derivative) and Johnny Cash is widely recognized as a progenitor of Country music. In fact, country music at it’s inception was simply a rural version of rock music.

Now, the two genres have had decades to evolve into two separate entities with distinctive fanbases and cultures that (generally) don’t overlap. But there’s always been a common thread connecting the two – the Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Woman” is a good example. “Southern Rock” bands have kept a fusion between the two genres (rock and country) alive through the decades, but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that country music and heavy metal met and mixed.

No article dealing with the cross-cultural zone between country and metal would be complete without mentioning two bands – Pantera and Hank Williams III. These two groups bridge the gap between the two genres quite nicely. To further the connection – Pantera’s last real album (even though the lead singer, Phil Anselmo, wasn’t part of it) was a collaboration between the band and David Allen Coe entitled “Rebel Meets Rebel“. Artists like Kid Rock and Aaron Lewis from Staind have kept the connection going.

The Present Situation

Within the past year or so, there’s been more of an “exodus” of metal and hard rock artists in some form or another to the country music medium. Now, it’s not always a full blown transition, and it’s actually been going on for a while (technically since the dawn of both rock and country). I think it’s more accurate to describe the country/hard rock/metal phenomenon in terms of a spectrum: Dabbling (One-Off Country Albums, Collaborations)->Fusion Styles->Full Transition Between Genres (Including solo albums/projects).

In the dabbling category we have  Devin Townsend’s side project (Casualties), Nergal from Behemoth’s country/folk album, Jimmy Bower’s (Down/Eyehategod) Country album, Jonathan Davis’ (Korn) collaboration with country artists Big and Rich, Bon Jovi’s Country album, Chuck Billy (Testament) doing his country tribute to Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”, and considering I don’t know where Aerosmith stands at this moment I’m going to include Stephen Tyler’s country project as well. And Bret Michaels (Poison) country album.

As far as fusion styles – obviously guys like Pantera and Hank III go without saying. The mutual blues ancestor of metal and country music make them more compatible than you’d think at first listen. In fact, due to the Pantera connection we wouldn’t have groove metal without country.

And for full transitions you’ve got Kid Rock (This guy’s such a redneck, it wasn’t that much of a transition. I think he plays the CMT awards semi-regularly), Aaron Lewis (Staind),  David Vincent (fucking Morbid Angel), and Danny Worsnop (Asking Alexandria). So we’ve got Metalcore, Death Metal, Blackened Death, Doom, Nu-Metal, Hair Metal, Hard Rock, Groove, and Prog represented in country music just from the bands mentioned in this article. I’d say that’s enough of a spectrum state that this isn’t a genre specific phenomenon – the appeal seems to be pretty universal among metal artists.

What Metal Culture Can Learn From Country

In terms of the metal community, a look at the current state of country is a sobering reminder that the music industry (all bureaucracy, in fact) can be a very toxic thing . So, as much as people like to go around bashing elitists – that particular core demographic of the metal community is a big part of the reason metal isn’t a shell of it’s former self. The pop machine has literally eviscerated the entire genre of country music, and left nothing but a hollowed out meat-puppet of a shell that they make perform for fans in a mocking, pandering sort of way. Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

This is what the pop machine does – it analyzes a core fan base to find things they like. It then arranges them into a palatable, pre-digested formula with literally zero integrity. Anybody who’s been alive through the 90’s should remember that country music was a pretty big thing back in the day. And in a matter of a few decades, it’s been reduced to a cultural and artistic void. Boots, cold beer, lemonade, lying in pick-up trucks, some sort of romantic rendezvous, and the month of July – hey, throw that in a 4-chord song format with a steel guitar playing in the background and you’ve got a #1 Country hit! Pandering at it’s best, there’s next to zero substance left in the genre. Probably part of the reason metal artists are occasionally dabbling – they’re filling the creative void.

Also, poser bashing is designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening in/to the metal community. Granted sometimes people take it a little too far, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. And in this case, a defense against entryism is much better than the alternative.

 

What Country Fans Can Learn From Metal Culture

Country music, as a culture, has zero defense against entryism. In layman’s terms, this means that there is no cultural “check” or way to stop an outside group from entering into Country music culture and changing it from within.

At first glance, this might not seem like a problem. It didn’t when Country-pop experienced a revival in the 90’s. But, here’s the problem. If any group can gain entry into an artistic culture – that includes a group put together by a record company. And their focus is on dollar signs, not art.

Unfortunately, because record companies already have a lot of money, they can afford to hire people to do studies into what the fanbase likes and doesn’t like (and then plug the results into the pop-machine formula). At this point, it’s not a matter of if or when it happens (because it already has), it’s a matter of what to do about it. I think that country music as a whole can benefit from a little “heavy metal sensibility”.

First and foremost, the artists getting into country are considered staples of their respective metal genres. These are top-notch artists with creative energy to spare. So, you’ve got a bunch of artists entering the scene and playing real music in the creative void left by the pop industry .

Second, I would hope they bring a little of that “elitist” attitude that has helped heavy metal stay out of the clutches of the pop industry for almost 6 decades. Combined with the DIY ethos of metal and punk, it just might be the breath of fresh air that country music needs.

Third, I hope a few metal artists reintroduce a bit more of that rebel attitude country music deserves.

Conclusion

I think it’s good for metal artists to branch out a little bit. Considering how saturated the market is with metal bands right now, it’s certainly not hurting heavy metal at all. And it could make country music tolerable again. Overall, I’d call it a win/win situation.

Women, Violence, Sexism, and Metal

 

Introduction

I’d like to start this by saying  that I do not believe that there is an inherent bias towards or against female listeners or performers in metal culture. I think that there is a gender gap/dynamic, but this is only a problem in as much as the gender demographics relate to music in general.

I’ve never heard anyone complain about the fact that pop artists discriminate against males by catering to a predominantly female audience.When’s the last time you read about misandry in a music scene? Or are songs about killing men and hiding their bodies, or committing felonious acts against personal property of men? Because country music has both of those – “Goodbye Earl” and “Before He Cheats”, respectively. Or how about just google searching “songs that bash men“?

I’m not saying “oh, poor men. we’re so oppressed” or anything of the sort. I’m saying that the people who cry misogyny  are just looking for an excuse to bash metal in the never-ending quest for political correctness. Or, at best, they’re looking at a small fraction of metal and spinning it to paint it in a negative context without taking time to understand the half century of culture surrounding the music (which, like with anything, provides the necessary context to bring clarity to the subject). Either way, it’s a ridiculous double standard – coming from people who say they’re trying to end double standards, I consider it hypocrisy at it’s best/worst.

Violence/Disturbing Material in Metal Lyrics

First and foremost – of fucking course there’s violence in metal lyrics. It’s aggressive music. If they were singing about love/flowers/hippie shit it wouldn’t work. Nobody ever accused Johnny Cash of inciting people to violence when he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” – and he sings about shooting a man just to watch him die.

The Beatles wrote “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” about a fictional character who kills people with a fucking hammer – granted they were a tad less graphic than, say, Cannibal Corpse’s song “Hammer Smashed Face”. But at the end of the day, they were singing about the same thing – fictional characters murdering people with fucking hammers. Oddly enough, you don’t really hear anyone saying “oh, shame on the Beatles”.

The Rolling Stones can sing a song about having sex with a dead man and people flock to see them – but when Slayer writes a song called “Necrophiliac” people get all up in arms about it.

These examples are being used to illustrate a greater point – in metal music, there are going to be songs about violence against women (and disturbing subject matter in general). Taken at face value, this seems like something to rally against. But it’s not advocating violence against specific women (or women in general), and (I would argue) there are more metal songs with lyrical content dealing with violence against men. As a matter of fact, there’s probably a metal song about violence against everything on earth it’s possible to commit an act of violence against. So, women aren’t being exclusively singled out here – metal is an equal opportunity genre when it comes to violent lyrics.

So, I can certainly see why a girl might feel a bit odd singing along with a Cannibal Corpse song like “Fucked with a Knife” – I totally fucking get it. But, like anyone who’s familiar with the music, I think it’s safe to say she should know these songs aren’t about her. I’ll take it one further – there has never been a Cannibal Corpse fan (in the history of ever) who has committed acts of violence against women as laid out in a Cannibal Corpse song. Quite the opposite, the reason the lyrics work in context of the music is because the audience members (male and female) find them disturbing.

Are there people who are fucked in the head and claim inspiration from music to commit atrocities? Sure. The best example I can think of is the Helter Skelter murders. And Helter Skelter is a song about a fucking slide in England. However, almost 50 years after the Tate/LaBianca murders, I don’t think a single person in their right mind would say that the Beatles should have been silenced (or the White Album banned).

Discrimination Against Women in Metal Culture

Now, this is a topic I think warrants a bit more discussion. People who participate in the metal subculture don’t exist in a vacuum – the very name “subculture” means it’s a piece of a larger culture. As such, it’s good to keep this in mind when you’re discussing a topic like the treatment of women. I’m not making excuses for the prevalence of misogynist material in metal (extreme metal in particular), I’m saying that if you cherry-pick an argument it doesn’t deserve serious consideration.

Now, in metal academia it was first observed/stated by Deena Weinstein ( a female sociologist from outside the metal scene)in her book, “Heavy Metal: The Music and it’s Culture” that heavy metal culture formed around groups of men shortly after the fracturing of “hippie” culture. The fanbase already existed, and it was predominantly working class white males in Western industrial countries (the US and UK). And as it was a culture that formed and “normed” around this particular group, it’s natural that certain subjects, behaviors, etc that appeal exclusively to this group would be incorporated into the culture.

This includes (but isn’t limited to) styles of clothing and behavior within the cultural setting. Considering the fact that metal culture started increasing at the same time as the feminist movement was gaining social momentum in the United States (also observed by Weinstein in her book) – it can be viewed as a reactionary movement in the sense that it is a space where masculine qualities are socially acceptable.

In the words of Corey Taylor (Slipknot/Stone Sour)

“heavy metal is the last bastion of real rebellion, real masculinity, real men basically getting together and beating their chests”

 

Now, I don’t think that anyone would argue that Heavy Metal is anything but masculinist (at least in terms of gender dynamics). But is Masculinist the same thing as misogynistic? Quite simply, the answer is no. Celebrating and encouraging patterns of behavior and social norms that have been denoted as masculine does not in any way, shape, or form promote a dislike of the feminine. Quite the opposite, I would argue that an appreciation of the feminine is an inherent part of traditional masculinity. And any attempt to correlate or confuse the two terms is quite simply yellow journalism – sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism.

On Discrimination Against Female Metal Artists and Fans

At face value, this seems like one of the stronger arguments that there is a good deal of discrimination in metal culture. There is certainly a notable gender gap when it comes to the proportion of male v.s. female metal artists. Just like the fanbase, the pool of metal artists is predominantly male. And as you traverse the spectrum of music from mainstream into extreme metal – the gap gets considerably larger.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to this – I would argue that the main factor is that metal music appeals to men as a demographic significantly more than it does to women. This isn’t groundbreaking or cause for alarm – as I mentioned before, there are plenty of musical markets and cultures that appeal almost exclusively to a female demographic. I have yet to see an article accusing Adele of hating men because her fanbase is predominantly female. In fact, it makes perfect sense that a woman who makes music that deals with feminine attitudes and issues and presents a very effeminate sonic format would appeal to women. Almost as much sense as music that deals with predominantly male attitudes, made by predominantly male artists, in a masculine sonic format will appeal to a predominantly male audience. Hmmmm….

And the biggest (or most visible) critics of masculine metal culture have no fucking clue about the music. For example, this article in the Houston Press was written by a girl who obviously isn’t very familiar with metal culture beyond dipping her toes in the mainstream. Articles like this couldn’t be further from the truth, and are reflective of a general trend among hipster “Social Justice Warriors” to see a problem where there isn’t one. For every woman who fails to gain popularity in the metal scene – there are probably 50-100 guys who fail as well. And it’s not because of what’s between their legs – it’s because their music probably sucks.

If she really wants to get mad about a legitimate problem – how about talking about living in a culture that denotes a possession/love of power with masculinity. Because that, more than anything, is the argument behind why there is so little female participation in metal. Heavy Metal is a music and culture that celebrate power in various forms.

Now – I’ve heard the argument that female metal artists have to (essentially) dress like sluts/groupies to get any attention in the metal community. I can think of a few women who break that mold…

As a matter of fact – the girls in Arch Enemy, Eluveitie, Unleash the Archers, Huntress, Kittie, Otep, The Agonist, Kittie (the list could go on all day) prove exactly the opposite is true. In fact, I would argue that women in metal have a LOT more credibility if they dress like fucking metalheads.

Now, let’s take a look at a few bands who perpetuate the “sex kitten” stereotype in metal.

Bands like “The Butcher Babies” and “In This Moment” certainly make it look like women have to use sex to make it big in the metal world. But, I would argue that they lack a certain degree of respect specifically because they do this. Sex obviously sells across genders, it’s kind of a mainstream “I win” button when it comes to selling albums. It’s what pop stars (and stars from every other mainstream genre) do, and quite frankly I consider the practice utter filth. So, this isn’t a problem with JUST metal – this is a problem in the record industry in general that translates to metal (as it relates to the music industry). So don’t blame fucking metal and it’s fanbase for a broader cultural problem.

I can’t think of a single metalhead male I’ve ever met who thinks that these acts (Butcher Babies, In This Moment, etc) are anything even close to credible – and they most likely wouldn’t buy their music. Not because they’re women in metal, because they’re women who are degrading themselves in metal to make a few bucks. If they had the musical talent necessary to make it in metal, skimpy clothing wouldn’t even be on the table. There’s a reason Doro is a fucking legend in metal – because she didn’t compromise herself.

So, we can kind of see a pattern here – the only female metalheads who use sex appeal over talent are the more mainstream bands. And I have a big problem with this. Not because I dislike the thought of women using any tools at their disposal to make it big – that’s fucking awesome. Not because I don’t like scantily clad women – because I fucking love that shit. I have a problem with it because mainstream metal is the gateway for people to get into some of the harder, underground stuff. And if the first thing girls see is a bunch of scantily clad female metal artists, they’re going think this is the way they need to dress when they go to a metal show.

Why it’s Good to Pay Attention to What You’re Wearing at a Metal Show

Now, there’s nothing wrong with women wearing scant clothing at a show. But, it’s good to keep in mind that there’s already a culture of women who go to shows in sexy clothing. They’re called groupies. And within groupie culture, dressing in a certain way signals that these girls are there specifically to try and have sex with the band. Not in a “they’re being taken advantage of” or a “this is the only way women can participate in the culture” sort of way. In an empowering, these girls are exactly where they want to be doing exactly what they want to do sort of way.

However, this does present a cultural problem. Girls that emulate a mainstream metal female (and decide to dress in a promiscuous fashion) are probably going to be mistaken as a groupie. Not because all men are pigs, but because their fellow females have participated in creating a groupie culture within metal and hard rock. A culture that’s so ingrained that there are typically three types of backstage passes – one for people who have paid, one for women who have performed sexual favors for the road crew, and one for women who have been selected to come backstage and have a chance at performing sexual favors for the band(s).

This isn’t based on any science – just simple observation. A very liberal estimate puts the ratio of guys to girls at a metal show at roughly 9/1. Meaning at least 90% of the crowd in at any given metal show is male. And out of the 10% that’s female, you’ve got enough groupies and tag-along girlfriends who don’t even really listen to metal where a certain amount of stereotyping is just going to happen.

Now, these numbers are changing (thank god, a few women certainly bring a breath of fresh air into the sausage party that is a metal show) – but the only real way to get rid of these negative stereotypes is for girls to go to metal shows. Not just as a tag-along girlfriend (there’s nothing wrong with this, but there’s a reason that stereotype exists), and not just to dress promiscuously with the hopes of hooking up with either the band or someone in the audience. The more genuine female metalheads there are at shows, the more that stereotype will disappear.

im-with-the-band-pamela-des-barrescover of “I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie”

And when I say “genuine female metalheads”, I mean girls who are fans of the music, participate in the culture, and are not there for the express purpose of finding a sexual partner. And unless you’re willing to dis-empower groupies, this is probably going to always be the case. Can groupies be genuine metal fans? Sure. Will they ever be viewed as anything other than a sex object by the majority of metal fans? Probably not – seeing as sex is part of the base on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, you’re never going to be able to compete with several millions years of instinct. So, for the same reason the guys in Magic Mike will never be viewed for their acting talent – groupies and those who dress like groupies will always be initially viewed as sex objects. I’m not trying to say men are blameless victims of evolution or something – but that’s pretty much the way humans (male and female) are wired.

groupies

Visual cues aren’t limited to groupie dress codes – when I talk about something like “unwritten rules of metal“, I’m referring to cultural norms, many of which are based on visual cues. Metal Culture relies heavily on visual cues 1) because humans are predominantly visual creatures and 2) because in many areas of the world metal is shunned. The easiest and fastest way to communicate your love of a particular band, or participation in metal culture generally, is through (what is commonly referred to as) ‘the uniform’.

types

Side note – this is why I make a big deal out of mainstream culture co-opting the metal uniform over the past few years. It’s sending false signals – there’s nothing quite as annoying as walking up to someone in a metal shirt and finding out they don’t listen to the band/album displayed on the shirt.

Dealing with Metal “Gatekeepers”

Women have a legitimate gripe in this area, and I’m 100% against someone coming up to another person at a show and quizzing them as a way of forcing them to display their “metal credibility”. And girls do get this a lot more than guys. But it’s not exclusively a female problem – in fact it’s such a widespread phenomenon that Brien Posehn made a music video/song about it…

So, even if we get to a point where this doesn’t happen to women more frequently than men, it’s still going to happen. Because assholes are everywhere.

Also, don’t call them elitists. Metal elitists are cool as fuck. People who do stuff like this are just plain assholes.

 

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.

Shameless plug, if you like what you read feel free to join my metal facebook group Metal Stuff.

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