The “metal bubble” bursts


Humanity follows this pattern: someone breaks away from doing the same stuff everyone else is doing, does something different and it resonates with smart people, so everyone else starts doing it but they use it as a new flavor for doing the same stuff everyone else is doing. They think this will let them be both new and familiar at the same time, and it attracts an audience who thinks like them, and then the different thing is destroyed.

Heavy metal goes through these bubbles every decade. Black Sabbath set the scene with proto-metal in 1970, but by 1976 most bands had hybridized that with heavy rock like Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Deep Purple and and The Who. The result was “heavy metal” the sub-genre of the larger metal genre, and it quickly got so bad that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) rebelled against it with do-it-yourself (DIY) albums that hit hard but never quite got to the long phrasal riffs that Black Sabbath had innovated, in part in emulation of horror movie soundtracks. In the early 1980s, speed metal, thrash and proto-underground metal emerged to counter the calcified edifice of heavy metal which was currently dominated by glam metal, a Californian crossover between European heavy metal, surf rock and American album-oriented-rock (AOR). By the late 1980s, that bubble too had burst as speed metal bands very publicly sold out, and death metal and later black metal formalized themselves in response. But by 1994, both had spent their momentum and languished in inertia. What came in their place was a rapid succession of bad imitators, war metal, indie-metal, metalcore and finally a breath of fresh air with revitalized speed metal and classic heavy metal merged into power metal.

That was 21 years ago.

Currently, the metal scene languishes. The nu-underground fascinates itself with FMP/NWN bands that resemble three-chord punk translated to metal aesthetics, while the mainstream extreme metal scene uses late hardcore songs with metal riffs in random order. No “greats” have emerged, but there are plenty of favorites, and if you read most review sites, you will see praise heaped on the release of the week without any concern for its actual staying power. However, the audience who surged in to take advantage of the new metal-rock hybrids remains large, and therefore there are profits to be made, creating a “metal bubble”: a zombie genre kept afloat by inertia, lacking any real substance, and worst of all, one that blocks any actual innovation by the sheer popularity of imitation.

Current bands are distinguished by being hipster bands. A hipster is someone who has nothing to believe in, so uses things that might be worth believing in as a way of accessorizing and making himself look interesting. Hipsters love bands that no one else listens to, ironic use of instruments or lyrics, and most of all, anything that sounds like nostalgic indie rock but with new exciting combinations of flavors. Hipsters love pirate metal, jazz-metal, post-metal and other variants of the late punk songs with metal riffs in random order that is metalcore. Witness the hipster:

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Hipsters also have their own ideology, called “social justice,” which is their way of one-upping you by being better than you on a level that joins morality and politics. It is like the neighbors who, on hearing you went on vacation, inform you that instead of going on vacation they went to some impoverished country to help the poor. It is the people in the office who make a show of giving lavish gifts to charity. It is politicians kissing babies and making speeches on the site of tragedies. In short, hipster is everything wrong with humanity, and its ideology is not even an ideology; like all things hipster, it is a pose designed to convey that the person making it is morally superior, politically more well-informed, socially more empathetic and compassionate, and most of all just more interesting than you. That is hipsterism in a nutshell.

The point is not that their ideology would be wrong, if it were adopted out of belief, because that is beyond the topic of this article. Their ideology is fake like their bad metal bands which created and maintain the metal bubble. You may be a hipster if you only listen to metal bands with theremin because they are different, or if you collect rare kvlt underground tapes that only 42 other people have because they are obscure, or only listen to bands with “socially conscious” (a more antiquated cliché is hard to find) lyrics because they are more righteous. Most people in metal now are either hipsters or the mainstay of metal’s transient audience, which is suburban kids desperate for some way to rebel against their parents that will not get them in actual trouble, like a school shooting or hacking the local newspaper, among other alienated white kid pastimes.

In the meantime, the metal bubble is popping because of a dearth of bands of actual musical importance, which makes metal just like everything else on television an oversold nostalgia item from previous generations foisted on today’s youth because aging once-hip people in media are desperate for a tangible symbol of rebellion that is simultaneously innocuous enough to sell products for their advertisers. Metal itself has become clich&ecaute;. Think of the big name movies: when a character is introduced as rebellious, they trot out the hackneyed symbols of conformity safe rebellion like heavy metal, motorcycles, tattoos and cigarettes. These things no longer threaten any social order and are generally accepted, so they can be used to sell an image. At the same time, the audience recognizes these tropes to signal rebellion, so they are useful when you want your brand of artisanal organic free-trade rooibos tea to stand out from the rest as being “edgy” and “different.” Cliché is a language that advertisers and consumers speak to one another.

Yet the signs appear on the wall. Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash spoke out on the pop trend in heavy metal:

I think the music business itself sucks. It’s turned into a very corporate, materialistic… I mean, even artists are trying to conform to the record industry now. It used to be the artist was for the artist and there was a conflict of interest between the creative artist and the record company wanting to make a lot of money, and eventually they’d sort of work it out. Because then, they used to develop artists, and now it’s just like Top 40 — everybody’s trying to be Top 40. Even heavy metal bands are trying to be Top 40. So it’s not a big turn-on, like it was for me in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s where it was exciting and there was a sense of rebellion and whatever…And even if you have a good band — you’re talented musicians and songwriters and whatnot — it’s, like, if you don’t have a Top 40 success on your first single, there you’re done. And in order to get a Top 40 success on your first single, you have to make compromises for your material for the record business itself.

This followed commentary toward the same effect by Kerry King of Slayer and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Halford made the damning statement that the metal community is essentially spamming itself and blocking the rise of quality bands:

And so this thing about the Internet, it’s great to get your music across quickly, it’s very simple to get your music to the world, but it’s very difficult to break through the clutter, break through all of the noise.

While he blames the internet, much as later underground metal musicians would, the question we must ask ourselves is whether the problem is breaking through the clutter or the clutter itself. When a genre is littered with many bands that sound different but offer nothing musically or artistically — a fancy word for the content of their music, what it expresses emotionally and as commentary on life — then quality will not be recognized because people are accustomed to mediocrity. They will buy what they recognize and literally pass over good bands in favor of more of the same old stuff because it is safer and their friends recognize it. Kerry King chimed in with another damning statement:

We were at a festival in South America a few years ago and we were watching a video feed of the band that was playing onstage. I was watching the screen and I just did not get why this band was popular at all. I pulled [EXODUS/SLAYER guitarist] Gary Holt aside. I pointed at the screen, and asked him, ‘Hey, Gary, would you aspire to be these guys?’ He said, ‘Not at all.’ It was because they were the most boring and lethargic guitar players I had ever seen. I would never want to be these guys. I’m looking at a lot of these bands and it looks like it’s the road crew soundchecking to me. There’s no vibe. There’s nothing that gives you aspirations to be awesome.

This sounds like the doldrums for metal. You cannot be a rebel if you are doing what is safe and what affirms the illusions by which most people live. Heavy metal has always been about smashing a single boundary, which is the line of denial that most people have about reality and from which they flee toward “socially accepted” pleasant illusions in fear of the difficult questions of reality itself, and when it fails to do that it fails to live. Its guitar heroes leave, its innovators go to other genres, and worst of all, its best up-and-coming musicians, writers, artists, producers, editors and photographers stay home or get into jazz. With that in mind, here is the latest installment the podcast from anti-censorship/anti-repression movement Metalgate, which hopes to renovate metal by smashing the denial line and popping every bubble it can:

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11 thoughts on “The “metal bubble” bursts”

  1. Joey Asshole says:

    Although the DLA, this site, and ANUS have tried to celebrate the rebellious and revolutionary spirit of metal, I think we’re losing, badly.

    My suggestion: Another new, authentic (not metalcore, deathcore, or etc) subgenre must emerge to reclaim metal as underground culture. As multiculturalism, diversity and SJWs infects Western Society, if we could create a subgenre which re-affirms the German Romanticism roots, destroys political correctness, promote reality and destroy dogma, and then alienate all people who do not understand it, I think we would have purpose to heavy metal.

    Right now, the entire genre is on autopilot, waiting to born again.

  2. Some Guy says:

    I think a large part of this whole mess is the frequent distractions that, as Aldous Huxley once wrote, man has an infinite appetite for. People “listen” with Facebook, porn, Tumblr, and whatever else open too, so when something sounds “different” it’s some amazing new thing. Plus, great metal takes some time to sink in and truly enjoy I’ve found, and when “me” and “now” are the two biggest priorities, why wouldn’t people just go to what instantly gratifies them instead? We’re contenting ourselves to death, not striving for or recognizing greatness and just embracing the flavor of the week. Perhaps the SJWs are a blessing in disguise in that they’ll give metal something to rebel against, bring reality crashing down as Sabbath did to the Flower Power types. Joey’s right: it needs to alienate people. It doesn’t need to be more “inclusive”.

  3. Count Ringworm says:

    There are no social boundaries left to smash, Brett.

  4. blackmetalkid says:

    This again Brett? Metal, just like rock and everything that spawned from that counter-cultural spirit, is doomed to oblivion because it wants to embrace the new through denial the old, including that which has been proven functional and didn’t need any change about it. It loves throwing the baby away with the bathwater and decides things in a rush (each decision, a point of no return), having an extreme difficulty realizing that its own will to alienation contains the germs for its current and long-lasting inertia. The more it seeks to alienate, the more it’s moving according to expectations because it simply reverses what the “mainstream” spirit of the time is doing. The intentions are commendable, but are, somehow, too reactive – always getting lost in its own need to be the anti-anti-something/pro-anti-something. The bands who used the style to build their own vision have my best regards, but it appeals a lot to teenagers and it’s being produced based on the feelings of very young, naive people and their own observations of the world around them and the conflicts of growing up (but when were the observations of teenagers/young adults worth listening to or univeral when we can’t even tell right from wrong at this stage of our lives?).

    I agree metal needs more composers and less artists, but as long as it treats itself like a “serious rebel/hessian warrior/outsider” it’ll be hindering its own growth (the little there’s left to be done). At least it can recognize the path is leads has many self-imposed restrictions.

    That’s a shame. The potential is still there, but… perhaps it should just do what the other counter-cultural forms of music can’t/don’t want to: die with some dignity instead of pushing itself to see if anything new can still appear (it can, but at such stage of development it’s quite rare and noone should be surprised by it). Nobody cares in the end anyways, so it can also keep existing and I’ll see in 10 or 30 years what’ll be of it (if I’m still here, that is, and still care enough to check it out and if it still exists).

  5. Demonseed says:

    Metalheads need to embrace themselves as proud rejects/nerds and stop trying to fit in . And we need to realize that in many countries (like America) that metal basically unpopular, and therefor trying to fit (musically and fashion too ) in is counter-productive. Metal needs to embrace and invite all rejects to just enjoy music and forget about which bands are cool or popular within the hierarchical genres. In the 90s when metal was more popular (like back when Far Beyond Driven hit number 1 on Billboards )I would see people with more various fashions and more people who accepted and embraced that they didn’t fit in. There is too much conformity now. Bands within genres sound way too uniform .

    1. Moloko + says:

      Metal needs to open its mind and borders to all kinds of rejects and deviants.
      It needs to be inclusive to gay people and transgender cuties. How many tranny
      thrash metal bands to yall know about? I find that inequality offensive and oppressive!

      Tranny metal should lead the way to the brave new world that’s cuming around 2018 or so.
      LGBTs of the world will unite under the rainbow against oppressive white American males
      like Brett Stephens and Tiny Midget.

      Kind rimjobs, your truly

      Moloko + revamped and hornier 8======>

      1. freudian says:

        There is truth to this “trolling”. I’d even say it’s prophetic…

        Decibel magazine operates on a “controversy/trend” basis. This is why they would have the Cretin and Leviathan life story issues in what are basically overblown promotions for Profound Lore records or whatever Converge is doing at the time while “throwing the old dogs a bone” by putting a Sunlight Studios homage section in the back to “keep it old-school dude”. It’s going to be brain damage and poses from here on folks. Better leave metal to the past like Burzum did if you value composition – the art is done, now there are only retreads from narcissists.

      2. I blew my head off like Per Ohlin says:

        I don’t think he was encouraging inclusiveness.

    2. OliveFox says:

      “Metalheads need to embrace themselves as proud rejects/nerds and stop trying to fit in.”

      I am a grown man with property, a house, wife and kids, and a small business. I am neither a reject or a nerd nor do I feel the need to “try” to do anything…fit in, self-alienate, or otherwise. Yet, I spend hard earned cash on quality music in order to love and enjoy it on my own or with friends and family, not pimp a subculture of phony rebellion by “feeling” rejected. Thinking you are a reject and getting together a bunch of people that feel rejected to make reject music IS the type of conformity that leads to bad hybrids of great music. I empathize with your attitude as it appears heartfelt. But it seems childlike and has little to do with music itself.

      Than again, I realize I am essentially treating Metal like I am purchasing Scotch. As discerning consumer, not from the perspective of an artist. So perhaps it is not for me to say what Metal needs in order stay relevant in some form. I just would rather artists consider the guys working hard for a living and are honored to support great art as opposed to pandering to various scenes and fucking kids whose parents bankroll their “passions.”

      1. Dan says:

        This is the best response. Buying metal like a scotch. It means you acquired a taste for a complex flavor, and delve into the various preferences that stem from other brands of that sort. One who prefers vodka shouldn’t quest out to find the perfect scotch, because they don’t truly understand the flavor of it in the first place. Also, One who respects aspects of a given thing should not try to change it, and in the same breath damn the traits that made it unique in the first place. Really, stick to what you know… and if you feel like branching out, don’t try and be an expert. Just drink it and/or shut the fuck up.

  6. Michael Parish says:

    “The nu-underground fascinates itself with FMP/NWN bands that resemble three-chord punk translated to metal aesthetics, while the mainstream extreme metal scene uses late hardcore songs with metal riffs in random order.” Exactly. I’ve noticed two things:

    1) Metal is currently dominated by self conscious “revival” bands: retro thrash, retro death, retro trad, and so on. It’s analogous to the horror film subculture’s current craze for collecting and displaying 80’s VHS tapes.

    2) Aside from the revivalists, “war metal” and “bestial” black metal are the only new thing going on, but their sole contribution is distilling classic sounds to three minute burst of their most base elements. This has appeal as a “true” form of black metal because of its’ non-musicality compared to the more melodious Norwegian sound. But really it appeals to the hipster sensibility of “obscurity = authenticity” as it derives from bands that were overlooked during the genre’s heyday (i.e. Blasphemy, Bestial Warlust, Beherit, Archgoat)

    Both trends and their current predominance indicate a scene that has exhausted itself, having used up all of its’ eventualities, and is now turning inward, searching for past avenues it overlooked at the time. As for me, I just ignore it and stick with the classics.

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