In Defense Of Metal

Estimated reading time: 46 minute(s)

Thanks for the detailed response. I think I understand your position much better now. Sorry for my delay in getting back to you; I had to wait until I had the time to give it justice. It is wonderful to have an opportunity to engage in a discussion like this; I really appreciate it.

Let me address your point about diversity first. It seems to me your argument rests on three claims: 1) there has been an increase in the number of metal sub-genres in recent years; 2) this increased diversity has balkanized fans, dividing them into mutually hostile groups that support only particular sub-genres; and 3) the resulting situation is bad for metal because it has limited the number of bands that can serve as common ground for all fans of heavy music (like Iron Maiden or Metallica were for metal fans in the 1980s). To be honest, I had never thought of things this way, so let me go through the exercise of assessing each claim in turn.

Is metal more diverse than it used to be? I think that it is, but to both a lesser and a greater extent than you assert. Although it is undeniable that there are more sub-genres now than there were in 1990, the increase may be less than you think. According to the Sam Dunn (Martin Popoff) metal genealogy, only five of the twenty-four metal sub-genres were founded in 1990 or later. Four (Goth Metal, Nu Metal, Swedish Death Metal, and Norwegian Black Metal) were founded in the early nineties, while only one, the New Wave of American Metal, appeared in the last decade. Now, that’s about a twenty percent increase over a twenty-year period, which may be nothing to sneeze at, but it’s hardly an overwhelming surge when one considers that the previous twenty-year period saw the birth of nineteen sub-genres (and let’s be real: you’ve never listened to Goth Metal anyway!). I thus acknowledge the increase in sub-genres since our high school years but do not find it that troubling. What may be bothering you more than the quantitative increase is a qualitative change: all five of these newest sub-genres either feature screaming vocals exclusively or adopt mixed approaches that incorporate screaming (I’ll get back to this point below).

For me, the increase in diversity over the last two decades has been more evident on three other dimensions: 1) gender (the influx of women both onstage and in the crowd); 2) nationality (it’s no longer just about the US, UK, Germany, and that one band from Brazil that everyone wishes would get back together); and 3) “hyper-hybridization” (more and more bands finding new sounds by mixing elements of well-established sub-genres). I’ve written about the first two before, so I will only restate my view that metal has benefited greatly over the last two decades from the increased participation of both women and people from outside the core Anglo-Saxon countries that gave it birth. These new participants have brought with them new perspectives and talents that have enriched the field in ways both small and large. However, diversity has also increased by what you might call “hyper-hybridization,” by which I mean that bands today, whether new-comers or veterans, are more likely to mix elements of multiple sub-genres than in the past. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that most musical innovation occurs this way (e.g. thrash came from mixing NWOBHM and punk rock, etc.), but I think lately most sub-genres have shown this tendency to an increased degree, even borrowing from non-metal genres like folk, jazz, and country. When a Norwegian black metal act can evolve into the Enslaved of today, we are talking about some serious musical cross-dressing. Consider also the journeys of Opeth or Mastodon from their first days to the present. Or take the new Bleeding Through album, which continues an exciting flirtation with black metal from a California-based metal core act. I generally find this kind of diversity refreshing rather than overwhelming, but it can sometimes miss badly (e.g. Portnoy’s gross vocals, anyone?). Still, I am reluctant to declare this kind of experimentation an overall bad thing for metal. Anyway, I guess I see the increase in diversity as more attributable to experimentation within each established sub-genre rather than to the proliferation of new ones. Does that make sense?

Has the increase in diversity, however viewed, divided metal fans in some community-destroying way? This really depends on if fans of particular sub-genres have grown more hostile or close-minded when confronted with other sub-genres. I can only point to some anecdotal evidence to the contrary. First, think of the spread of the European-style festival model over the last two decades. Today, we not only have Download (England), Wacken (Germany), and countless other European festivals but also Rock in Rio (Brazil), Loud Park (Japan), Desert Rocks (UAE), the occasional Ozzfest (US), as well as smaller regional versions. The model of these festivals is generally to cater to as many metal tastes as possible, thus bringing together fans of different sub-genres and forcing them to be exposed to stuff they’ve never heard before. Young bands often praise this arrangement as a great way to gain new fans. When I think back to Loud Park 2009 and remember sitting through sets by H.E.A.T. and Fair Warning in order to maintain a good spot to see bands like Lazarus A.D. and Children of Bodom, I have to conclude that the festival as an institution limits the capacity of today’s metal fans to avoid exposure to other sub-genres. Personally, I have also found that festivals breed a kind of “live and let live” attitude in which as long as the act on stage is committed to what they are doing, most fans listen respectfully or, if they really can’t stand it, head to the back to grab a bite to eat. In fact, I have rarely felt a stronger sense of community than I have at Loud Park the last few years (and at Ozzfest before that).

Another way to assess whether metal fans are increasingly divided into hostile camps is to check out where they get their information, such as the contents of major metal magazines. Back in the day, I would say that Metal Edge and Metal Maniacs covered the mainstream and extremes of metal, respectively. Edge featured mostly hair bands, million-sellers, and record company-picked newcomers, while Maniacs focused on the heaviest music in all its forms. Since both publications went under last year, allow me to make an imperfect comparison with two still-existing British magazines, Metal Hammer and Terrorizer, which I read regularly. Although Hammer is supposed to be the more mainstream and Terrorizer the more extreme, I would argue they cover more of the same bands than ever overlapped between Edge and Maniacs. One quick-and-dirty way to compare editorial lines is to examine their writers’ choices for top albums of the year. In 2009, 30% of the albums (12 of 40) selected by the writers of both magazines overlapped. I have a hard time imagining this to ever have been the case for the “best of” lists from Edge and Maniacs. (Interestingly enough, the same exercise performed on Revolver (mainstream) and Decibel (extreme) yields a 40% overlap (8 of 20).) Now, this is only a rough measure, but, as a regular reader, I can say that both Hammer and Terrorizer do often cover the same bands, especially as Hammer now features its “Subterranea” section, which reviews the grossest of the gross in the metal underground. Terrorizer is still heavier on average, but my point is that there is more common ground between these two contemporary magazines than I remember in past publications of these types. Of course, one might argue that magazines are irrelevant because the internet is now the main source of metal coverage. However, even there, I fail to see an extreme segregation of information on major metal news sites. For example, the Blabbermouth and BW&BK websites seem to cover just as wide (if not wider) sub-genres of metal than the monthly magazines. Is it just the sites I read?

Over the last year, I have made friends with a group of Japanese metal heads, and we now go to shows and out for drinks regularly. Our ages range from mid-twenties to late-forties, which may be a factor, but nearly all listen to a wide range of metal sub-genres. Of course, everyone has their individual tastes, but none seem particularly hostile to the opinions of others (Although I did once get roundly chastised for not having any Manowar on my iPod!). Of course, as an old fart, I don’t know what’s going on with the kiddies today, but, at least as my own experiences go, I fail to see either the close-mindedness or the divisiveness that you lament. Especially when one recalls the deep, and sometimes violent, divisions between glam and thrash metal or hardcore and other metal sub-genres in the 1980s, today’s metal community seems more open-minded and accepting than in the past. Am I too much of an optimist?

You final point about the loss of “core” acts that anyone would recognize as prototypical metal bands really got me thinking. I have some reservations about this view. My first is one you have already pointed out: many of the bands that serve as common ground for metal fans today are actually the same ones that united fans in the 1980s: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Kiss, etc. To give a concrete example, of the sixteen bands that have headlined a stage at Loud Park over the last four years, only seven released their debut albums after 1990, and three of these, Heaven and Hell, Down, and Rob Zombie, might be disqualified as merely new collections of veteran musicians who had already made their names with different acts that debuted prior to that date. Is this bad for metal? Well, just because many of these bands are old doesn’t make them any less worthy or able to serve as “core” bands. It also seems an admirable feature of metal that so many bands and sub-genres have exhibited such longevity. However, the recent loss of RJD (which I have yet to get over) speaks to the perils of relying too heavily on an aging elite. The question is thus whether metal is continuing to produce younger acts capable of uniting fans and taking their place in the “core” as older bands pass from the spotlight.

Enter my second reservation. Metal has produced a number of acts over the last twenty years that have attracted relatively large swaths of fans, an assertion that is strengthened if you factor in changes in the music industry as a whole. Let’s face it: Due to technological and market changes, it is far more difficult to go platinum today as a new metal act than it was in the 1980s. I thus suggest focusing on worldwide album chart positions (as opposed to total album sales) as a means of standardizing the definition of success across eras. A brief internet search yields the following incomplete list of metal bands that debuted after 1990 and have charted regularly either in Europe, the US, or both: Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, Korn, System of a Down, Stinkin Park (Fuck!), Limp Dikzit (Double Fuck!), Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Disturbed, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Shadow’s Fall, Bullet for My Butthole, Machine Head, Arch Enemy, Children of Bodom, Dimmu Borgir, In Flames, Nightwish, Within Temptation and Trans-Siberian Orchestra (made you laugh!). Now, this is only a partial list, but at least there are a number of relatively young acts that one can point to as prominent metal bands. Of course, I absolutely hate some of these bands, but that was also true back in the 1980s (see Manowar example above!). At any rate, if one accepts that as a musical movement grows older, a mixture of legacy acts and up-and-comers will eventually constitute the “core,” making it necessarily more diverse over time, then metal seems to be doing okay at maintaining some semblance of common ground, although this real estate may now be a little too crowded for your tastes. Do you agree when I put it this way?

Turning to your critique of screamed vocals, I again find some points of agreement and disagreement. First, I agree that screamed vocals, done poorly, can impart a sameness to the music that clean vocals, done properly, would not. However, clean vocals, done poorly, can also be just as monotonous. Trust me, just check out power metal bands like Dragonforce or Rhapsody of Fire (Yawn!). I’ll take Randy Blythe’s pitched screams over ZP Theart’s repetitious high-tone any day! My understanding is that the harsh parts are meant to make the melodious parts stand out. If they are overwhelming the melody instead, then the group in question is just not succeeding at what they are trying to do. Screaming as a general technique is not to blame. My problem with some bands that mix screaming with clean vocals, such as Isis (R.I.P.), Between the Buried and Me, Baroness, etc., is that their clean vocals are just not very good and, as a result, their vocal melodies (judged independently of the screams) tend to be forgettable. Perhaps the trend toward screaming is at fault in that new bands tend to recruit screamers irrespective of their clean singing ability and only later in their careers ask them to try their best Halford imitation. At any rate, lately it’s been the shitty clean singing that has been the most irritating to me. Perhaps we can agree on an overall shocking disregard for the quality of vocals in certain sectors of the metal world! How does that sound?

Second, you are absolutely right that most new acts incorporate some screaming in the vocal mix. As noted above, all five of the sub-genres founded since 1990 rely at least somewhat on screaming. If you categorize vocal approaches into scream (nearly all vocals are guttural and lack melody), mixed (vocal approach split between screaming and clean singing, including middle-of-the-road thrash vocals), and clean (nearly all vocals are clean and melodious) and apply this to your “best of” lists, the number of albums featuring mostly clean vocals falls from 45% in the 1990s to 25% in the 2000s to a low of 10% on your 2009 list. The corresponding increase is in mixed approaches which go from 35% in the 1990s to 60% in the 2000s to a shocking 70% in 2009. To get some comparative leverage, I decided to compare these figures with a coding of my (in-progress) best of 2009 list. Although I plan to make it a top forty list, I have only completed the top twenty at this point. Still, coding the top twenty as it currently stands yields 40% clean, 40% mixed, 20% scream, a result similar to your 1990s list. In fact, it would be 50% clean if I had coded bands like Epica and Amorphis as clean (they still both use a small bit of screaming), but I wanted to stay consistent. The strong showing for clean vocals on my list is due in part to my embrace of power and doom metal but also to my loyalty to legacy acts. Anyway, this got me wondering if maybe you and I are looking for melody in different places. We are both melody-starved, but whereas I have searched for it in different sub-genres of metal, you have increasingly turned to non-metal sources to get your melodic buzz on, be it contemporary pop/rock artists or classic bands like the Beatles. Does that seem fair?

At any rate, this has gotten way too long, so I’ll sign off here. I’ve appended my coding of your lists below so feel free to object to my judgments and change the figures accordingly. In particular, I was unsure how to code some thrash vocalists (Dave, Rob Flynn, etc.).

Best of 1990s-Zigstyle 9 clean (45%) 7 mixed (35%) 4 scream (20%)
Mixed 20. Testament – Low (1994)
Clean 19. Memento Mori – Rhymes of Lunacy (1993)
Clean 18. Candlemass – Tales of Creation (1990)
Clean 17. Danzig – Lucifuge (1990)
Clean 16. Anthrax – Persistence of Time (1990)
Scream 15. Entombed – Wolverine Blues (1993)
Clean 14. Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding (1998)
Clean 13. Dark Angel – Time Does Not Heal (1991)
Mixed 12. Sepultura – Roots (1996)
Mixed 11. Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power (1992)
Mixed 10. Cynic – FOCUS (1993)
Scream 9. Death – HUMAN (1991)
Mixed 8. Slayer – SEASONS IN THE ABYSS (1990)
Mixed 7. Fear Factory – DEMANUFACTURE (1995)
Scream 6. Coroner – GRIN (1993)
Scream 5. Carcass – HEARTWORK (1994)
Mixed 4. Megadeth – RUST IN PEACE (1990)
Clean 3. Marilyn Manson – ANTICHRIST SUPERSTAR (1996)
Clean 2. Tool – AENIMA (1996)
Clean 1. Dream Theater – AWAKE (1994)]

Best of 2000s—Zigstyle 5 clean (25%) 12 mixed (60%) 3 scream (15%)
Mixed 20. Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect (2009)
Mixed 19. Kreator – Enemy of God (2005)
Mixed 18. Baroness – The Blue Album (2009)
Clean 17. Iced Earth – The Glorious Burden (2003)
Mixed 16. The Haunted – One Kill Wonder (2003)
Mixed 15. Machine Head – The Blackening (2007)
Mixed 14. God Forbid – Constitution of Treason (2005)
Scream 13. Gojira – From Mars to Sirius (2005)
Mixed 12. Exodus – Tempo of the Damned (2004)
Clean 11. Cynic – Traced in Air (2008)
Clean 10. Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000)
Mixed 9. Slipknot – Iowa (2001)
Scream 8. Meshuggah – Catch 33 (2005)
Mixed 7. Killswitch Engage – the End of Heartache (2004)
Clean 6. The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)
Scream 5. Lamb of God – Ashes of the Wake (2004)
Mixed 4. Opeth – Ghost Reveries (2005)
Mixed 3. System of a Down – Toxicity (2001)
Clean 2. Tool – Lateralus (2000)
Mixed 1. Mastodon – Crack the Skye (2009)

Best of 2009—Zigstyle 1 clean (10%) 7 mixed (70%) 2 scream (20%)
Mixed 10. Obscura – Cosmogenesis
Mixed 9. Megadeth – Endgame
Clean 8. Heaven and Hell – The Devil You Know
Mixed 7. God Forbid – Earthsblood
Mixed 6. Isis – Wavering Radiant
Scream 5. Napalm Death – Time Waits for No Slave
Scream 4. Behemoth – Evangelion
Mixed 3. Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect
Mixed 2. Baroness – The Blue Record
Mixed 1. Mastodon – Crack the Skye