No Longer Exists
As metal music has further slid into an abyss of genericism and meaningless sound and fury, the bleating of "Support the Underground!" has intensified to the point where its cliche is expected as if a test of allegiance. What none will say is that the underground does not exist, and even were someone to construct it, it would no longer be relevant, as the circumstances which made "underground" metal important are long departed.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was more difficult to get one's music published than today. There were few labels, and putting out releases was expensive. A few gigantic companies controlled what most people see and hear (and still do, because only they can afford the advertising). Consequently, small underground labels popped up and tended to put out a couple CDs a year and sell them for reasonably high prices.
When one said "support the underground" back then, it meant going the extra mile to get the quality releases from these off-broadway sources. Because pressure on the underground was high, most of its releases were meaningful art even if not as slick as the major label stuff, and it was not a terrible idea to support the underground as an agenda.
The current decade is a different story entirely. First it is important to note that despite thousands of people chanting in unison how we should support the underground, it has been nearly ten years since the underground produced excellent art in any numbers. Sure, there are some good bands around, like Averse Sefira or Demoncy, but they're the exception and they are not getting the reception one could expect when the underground was vibrant and any band of high quality was immediately recognized widely.
In fact, when an outsider says that all of the current metal bands sound the same, he or she is not entirely inaccurate. The radical differences in music between bands like Emperor and Morbid Angel, or Deicide and Burzum, no longer exist; metal, like a product, has come to sound very similar because the same assumptions propel its creation. Much like in the 1970s, when stadium metal turned the entire genre into cliche, almost all of the bands today operate within the same narrow band of technique, artistic idea, song structure and aesthetic. If you miss one this week, there will be a nearly-identical one next week which will be just as good - or bad, if you're feeling realistic.
While the degree of instrumental ability and production quality has risen, the variation of metal bands from a tedious norm has declined alarmingly. There is an endless procession of bands that people talk about as "the next big thing," but it has been many years since there have been true greats: bands that express something profoundly and well so exactly that a selection of intelligent fans will find it universal.
Our problem now is abundance. Where in the 1980s, getting a CD out was so difficult that there were few bands and few labels, we now have thousands upon thousands of bands, labels, zines, websites and concert festivals. Everyone can record, and everyone does, which generates a flood of mediocre metal.
The problem with this flood isn't its quality in itself. The problem is that when there is a flood of undistinctive material, (a) anything that does not conform to the pattern is not recognized and (b) the information overload is so great than any excellent band that does rise will be ignored. In essence, the underground has replicated the errors made by gigantic record labels in the 1980s!
For this reason, those who might make excellent art are staying away from metal. They know that their chances of success are slim, and that then they will be one voice among millions, with whatever unique or personal qualities they put into the art ignored. For this reason, the fans start to look toward external traits: slick playing over profound songwriting, quality of production, technical concerns like instrumental precision, the novelty of aesthetic and/or band origin, and most of all, whether or not the band has networked socially among what we call "the underground" but is in fact a very accessible fanbase that is no different than the mainstream in how it rewards trends, group favorites, sycophants and the well-financed.
Why play in a metal band if everything excellent that you do goes unrecognized? The crowd of imitators and fools will look over your best work and nod, but they will not give it wings to rise above the others. After all, they each have their own bands and labels and zines to promote, so why defer their own success and participate in yours, even if your work is better? Social favorites dominate over quality. Consequently, the best people go elsewhere, where they can be recognized for what they do well, and where they are not doomed to being one of a crowd which, by its size, will never get anywhere.
If you start a black metal band today, and are as good as Emperor were on their demos, you will first face censure from others who fear that you will "get ahead" of their own mediocre bands without having "paid your dues," which translated into realistic terms means participation in the society of fans. Both of these factors have nothing to do with your demo, or your music.
Such a hypothetical band can expect that, once it has decided to socialize and become popular enough to be recognized, it will become flavor of the week, because there are so many bands that there is no time or energy to single out some excellent ones. Even more, the fanbase is numb to quality, and therefore will rank an excellent band on par with mediocre ones. The end result is that our hypothetical excellent band will get an equal share of the metal pie, but will never rise above that, even if its quality is far above that of all others.
This means the band members will have to content themselves with an endless series of day jobs, the praise of idiots, and a lack of recognition that means when it is all over, their excellent work will be forgotten, buried beneath a landfill of the mediocre. Any artist who is not strictly a hobbyist is going to avoid this genre, because the crowd has taken over and will not recognize quality, thus there is no way to make a name for oneself.
Interestingly, the same thing happened in hardcore music in the 1980s when it became cheap and easy to release seven-inch records. Suddenly, there were no "fans": everyone had a band, zine, label or distro. Consequently, quality went down, because no leaders were picked, and a great averaging occurred. Everyone could participate, but because there was no specialized fanbase, the farthest they got was participation, getting their share. No one great rose above and therefore, the great people stopped trying. There was no direction.
Analogous to the effects of democracy and consumerism on the quality of people in society as a whole? You bet it was. Analogy to egocentricism of the west, and its own cultural failings? You bet: the same mechanism was in effect: a lack of appreciation for quality because popularity/social pressures dictated participation, an external factor, not hierarchy, which requires a measurement of amorphous qualities such as "artistic worth" which are unrecognizable to most people in the crowd. Consequently, hardcore declined to the point where, in 1985, all the bands sounded exactly the same and there were no leaders.
The underground is dead, and if it shows signs of reviving, shoot it. It no longer has meaning and thus has become a way to sell music, a brand name even, not a distinction in quality or attitude. "Underground" metal is marketed exactly the same way mainstream music is, on a smaller scale, and while it does hard to hide this fact behind angry album covers, bad sound quality, and sociopathic topics, the lack of quality reveals what a lie its "underground" status is.
To use the occult terms, our current view of metal is exoteric: show up, participate, and you'll get your equal share. The best years of metal came about when it was esoteric, or rewarded the best among its members, and had a community in place that could tell the difference. Consider it a form of evolution. When such conditions are again in place, quality metal on a broad scale will return.
If there is something to replace the underground, it is the dissidents who choose music based on artistic quality alone. They don't care about the album covers, who the band knows, or how well its production makes it sound. They look for quality art of the poetic but aggressive nature found in early 1990s blackmetal, and when the horde of imitators stops flooding the market with crap, they stand a chance in hell of finding it - if any remains.
(For J. and N., with whom this was discussed extensively.) http://www.anus.com/metal/about/metal/underground/