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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.

Say Hello to the Face of This Years Summer Slaughter Tour

If you don’t care who funds a festival (as long as the lineup is good) you should have no problem with this article. After all, you don’t care.

But if you’re like me, you know these people…

AA-asking-alexandria-23957158-500-344black_veil_brides_by_bleedingstarclothing

…have absolutely no place representing an extreme metal festival.

Don’t get me wrong, the lineup for Summer Slaughter this year is light years ahead of what it was last year. It’s fucking fantastic… but it’s brought to you by a movie entitled, “American Satan.”

At first glance, that seems pretty cool. The names kinda lame, but at least it seems to be a rock/metal oriented movie. But then, looking at the cast, I noticed it’s starring the lead singer of the Blackveil Brides, as well as a member of Asking Alexandria.

What the actual fuck?!?

When the Summer Slaughter tour started out, it was a force to be reckoned with. They’re continually billed as “the most extreme tour of the year” and have been pretty famously advertised as catering to fans of “extreme metal”. And for the first year of their existence, this was true.

Then came the slow descent – the lineup steadily got worse every year. I would argue that a big portion of this is due to the participation of Sumerian Records. Initially the label brought diversity to the bill, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s what you’re supposed to have at a festival. But I started noticing a pattern – a few big names in death metal were being used to add star-power to a tour that progressively started catering to an indie label (like independent startup label, not to be confused with shitty millennial/hipster Indie rock).

I’m trying to think of another tour that changed their business model to cater to an indie label with a shitty roster.

Oh wait, now I remember. The Mayhem festival.

I’ll take you one further – Mayhem started to go downhill the same year that Sumerian Records got their own stage (2013). The lineup that year was actually pretty awesome (on par with how awesome this years Summer Slaughter lineup is, considering the formats of the festivals). Post 2013, these changes cause the decline I’ve been referring to. Mayhem went so far downhill, in fact, that it literally dampened the concert draw of headliners like Slayer.

Slayer had played the same venues as Mayhem the previous year, selling out concerts. Strangely, Mayhem didn’t. But why?

Kerry King said it best:

“Do I know this tour wasn’t booked correctly? Absolutely I know this tour wasn’t booked correctly. Gary Holt made the comment that usually there’s the Main Stage, a second stage, a third stage, and then that piece of shit record stage…now what they’re calling a second stage is at best a fourth stage and they’re wondering why people aren’t showing up.

In case you’re not familiar with the whole Mayhem festival debacle, I’ll save you the trouble of a google search. It completely imploded and dissolved.

So let’s recap for a second.

Mayhem festival started out with huge names, as a rather diverse metal festival. They had some heavy hitters, and then filled the roster with up-and-comers from independent record labels that catered to scenes that weren’t even fully accepted in the metal community (This is a good thing, it’s how we keep the music going – but there’s a point, I promise. Bear with me). Slowly they allowed said the independent record label to change the business model of the tour – taking creative control. The label (Sumerian) started using this opportunity as a springboard for shameless self promotion. They even changed the business model of the tour, adding a stage exclusive to the label. After these changes, the tour had one more fantastic lineup. The tour continued with the failed business model and completely dissolved within a period of two years. And it wasn’t pretty. Even Slayer couldn’t save it. Fucking Slayer. This is just as much the fault of that complete garbage label Victory Records, but they never would have been included on the tour in the first place if Sumerian hadn’t paved the way.

Summer Slaughter started out with huge names. They were a specialized festival, but still very diverse. They started making changes and incorporating bands outside the format from a certain scene-catering record label.  Enter 2016. The Summer Slaughter tour lineup is incredible (exactly what happened when Sumerian got their own stage at Mayhem ), but the promoters have allowed Sumerian to use it as a springboard to promote their shitty movie starring members of Blackveil Brides and Asking Alexandria.

The point is…change is not, by itself, a bad thing. In fact, innovation is one thing that keeps metal going. However, when a festival makes changes that have proven to be fatal for their peers, it’s a very bad thing.

Now, I’m not knocking fans of BvB or AA. I personally, despise that style of music, but different strokes for different folks. I don’t have a problem with them, or their fans.

I do, however have a problem with them being the public faces of a tour that promotes itself like Summer Slaughter does (this isn’t the fucking Warped Tour). Especially when you connect the dots and see that this is exactly the sort of business move that shut down Mayhem. I, for one, will not let the majority of my ticket sale go to putting people from Blackveil Brides and Asking Alexandria on the big screen.

A common argument I hear in favor of this sort of sellout move is that the big tours need the money to keep going. Valid argument. Hmmm, is there something they can do to keep the festival in the running without selling out? Maybe they can do what Maryland Death Fest did. They decreased the number of stages to a manageable level, kept all the bands on the bill. A few people might be butt-hurt about it, but they made a sound business move while keeping the integrity of the festival intact. And those guys have been going for at least 5-6 years longer than Summer Slaughter. So, it is not only possible to keep the integrity of the festival intact by not bowing to corporate sponsorship – it might just add to the longevity of the event.Sponsors don’t just give you money and expect nothing in return. The guys at Maryland Death Fest know this.

I think it’s safe to say, if promoters think it’s ok for members of Asking Alexandria and Blackveil Brides to be the public faces of Summer Slaughter they deserve to go down as swiftly, painfully, and publicly as Mayhem. Long live Maryland Death Fest!

Clean Vocals: Partially Selling Out or Completely Selling Out?

Contrary to the title, I actually really like clean vocals in metal. As long as they’re not whiny and angst filled.  This does seem to be a major point of contention in the metal community.

Some people absolutely love it, and some people can’t stand it. Especially in sub-genres like Melodic Death Metal (and it’s American cousin Metalcore), clean vocals have become so commonplace it’s almost camp. Bands like In Flames, Soilwork, Scar Symmetry, Solution .45, Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, All that Remains, and the like have been using clean vocals for years – with great success. The list goes on.

And more recently bands like Lamb of God, Whitechapel, Hatebreed, and Amon Amarth have had clean vocals on at least one track of their albums.

The way I see it, there are two things you need to look at when evaluating a band using clean vocals.

  1. Why are they doing it? This should be pretty obvious. If a bands been playing pretty much the same thing for over a decade, sometimes they just want to switch things up. Which is cool, you have to respect artistic integrity and the willingness to branch out and try something new. If the band hasn’t gotten a lot of radio play, and suddenly they have a song with a clean chorus on your local rock station – then you know exactly why they did it. Not cool. I understand wanting to get popular, but if you’re even remotely familiar with heavy metal you should know that you aren’t getting into it for radio play.
  2. Do you like it? I’m actually talking about listening to the song objectively. Maybe this will be the song that makes things “clique” in your head and makes you enjoy a clean chorus now and then. Maybe you just absolutely hate them all, and this will only confirm it for you. If you don’t give it a chance and actually listen to it first before passing judgement – you’re just a fucktard.

Personally, I think there are certain vocalists who should never do clean vocals. I don’t see Karl Sanders from Nile or Corpsegrinder from Cannibal Corpse branching out and doing clean vocals just yet. And that’s cool – if they did I’d be more worried about the world ending.

But clean vocals are a pretty integral part of metal. Besides the obvious Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, guys like Phil Anselmo from Pantera and Warrel Dane from Nevermore have been incorporating clean vocals for years.

And if you have anything negative to say about Nevermore, you’re wrong and I hate you. Those guys fucking rule, and Jeff Loomis is a god.

In fact, even bands like Arch Enemy have been toying with the idea of incorporating clean singing. Alyssa White-Gluz did a lot of them in her prior band The Agonist (they’ve actually gotten a lot better since she left the band, Victoria is a much better fit with their sound).

Also, Manowar has clean vocals. And Manowar kills posers with steel. Your argument is invalid.

In summation, if you don’t like clean vocals pull up your big kid pants and don’t fucking listen to it.

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