Let us review how we got here, how things are going, and where we are going.
Heavy metal started when people became dissatisfied with the convergence of counterculture protest rock and the bourgeois mentality of treating everything but the day job and taxes as a type of ego decoration for the consumption by others.
Numerous threads converged. King Crimson and Jethro Tull wanted to make progressive rock apocalyptic, The Stooges desired a raw realistic sound against the gleaming chrome and slick production, and Cream and The Who among other heavy rock bands hoped for a more energetic sound.
These threads came together in Black Sabbath, which fused the progressive rock style of through-composition with power chord riffs and heavy jams that turned the blues and rock into a new art form which was darker and pulsing with feral energy.
Named after a horror film, Black Sabbath began with the notion that people might enjoy a darker experience than regular rock just like they appreciated horror movies instead of the usual happy egodrama stuff.
Their initial burst of creativity inspired others who wanted to bring rock back into the new form, causing bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin to get heavier and more morbid. This gave rise to a type of radio metal that was more rock than metal.
Already it had become clear that commercialized versions of metal would rise to the top of the charts, including the nascent “glam metal” movement that mixed in New Wave aesthetics with simple metal songs. Metal musicians began to fear bourgeois commercialization and loss of “soul.”
In response, an underground movement called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal began creating more aggressive, fantasy- and history-oriented songs which added back in some of the prog and outsiderness of punk music. This unleashed a race to make more intense metal that continues to this day.
From this movement, bands re-infused the punk heritage of metal — a cross between progressive rock, punk rock, cinematic soundtracks, and heavy rock — by incorporating hardcore punk techniques and instrumentation, giving rise to speed metal.
Popularized by Metallica, this subgenre featured apocalyptic warnings of the future, merging the punk world-consciousness with the historical-mythological awareness of traditional metal. Its fast, muted-strum riffs featured intricate patterns that built on some of the more elaborate Black Sabbath songs.
By the late 1980s, however, speed metal had been assimilated by the bourgeois machine as surely as 1960s rock, 1970s prog, and 1980s punk had been. This spurred bands to go even further outside of mainstream tastes to make alienated artforms geared toward what society at the time feared.
Bringing together morbidity, occultism, and civilization collapse in their lyrics, these bands looked at the dark underside of modern society, namely the rot and dysfunction under the gleaming chrome and slick pro-printed signs. They talked about what we feared was real, not what was coming.
Formed at first from hybrids of past genres, a new generation of bands such as Sodom, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Slayer, and Bathory created a minimalistic hardcore punk styled version of metal which embraced the distorted vocals from NWOBHM bands like Motorhead and Venom.
They incorporated the Satanic imagery of NWOBHM and post-NWOBHM bands like Mercyful Fate, Angel Witch, Venom, and Iron Maiden alongside a set of images which might have come from eighteenth century Romantic poetry, of decaying structures, disease, loss of inner spirit, and the downfall of empires.
This subgenre of hybrids gave rise to death metal and black metal at the same time that thrash, a cross between high-speed hardcore punk and metal riffing, rose in protest of the New World Order through bands such as DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter, Fearless Iranians From Hell, and Dead Horse.
Maturing death metal bands incorporated thrash, speed metal, and all previous metal genres into their new incarnation, which started quickly toward the progressive rock habit of discursive compositions that featured context-shifting allowing a prismatic development of theme.
Bands such as Morbid Angel, Incantation, Asphyx, Deicide, Massacra, Pestilence, Obituary, and Suffocation launched a new sound that featured incomprehensible distorted growling vocals, riff mazes, and “brutality” in the form of pounding drums, rapid tempi, and aggressive sawing riffing.
While death metal took the center stage, black metal developed in the wings, using the death metal technique but adding a sense of melody and an ambient style where the drums were backgrounded to the voice of the guitar.
New acts such as Immortal, Mayhem, Gorgoroth, Emperor, Burzum, Darkthrone, Enslaved, and Graveland created a type of flowing music based on shifting atmosphere and a nihilistic rejection of everything that the world above ground and in the light prized in its bourgeois complacency.
This genre peaked in the mid-1990s after a series of seminal works and faded away as it was widely emulated by bands trying to inject more rock and rap into the equation, creating nü-metal, deathcore, metalcore, alternative metal (alternative rock with metal riffs), and postmodern metal.
Inspired by large commercial successes of bands that produced rock-format versions of speed metal like Pantera, and surface progressive rock stylings from Tool and other alternative metal bands, these new genres returned metal to levels of marketability not seen since glam metal in the 1980s.
Metal remains stranded in this era, although new iterations and recombinations of these styles continue to come out at an alarmingly fast rate.
For us to go further, we must ask what metal is within itself. It is easy to describe metal by technique — muted strum, tremolo, distortion, vocals, pacing, cadence, through-composed — but harder to say why these are used.
To understand any genre of music, one must understand what it hopes to express, because only that unites the techniques and compositions into a coherent whole. Metal has always been music of rebellion against rebellion and bourgeois normalcy alike, a type of elective outsider movement.
A spirit unites metal and separates it from all else. It expresses a morbidity and nihilistic realism that rejects all the fond Utopian dreams of humanity, and forces a confrontation with as much reality as possible, in the name of discovering what is possible but ignored.
Ultimately a realist genre, metal incorporates a sense of futurism as well, a type of almost sci-fi looking toward what we could do if we were not constantly fighting over money, inequality, religious symbols, and systems of control. It is a revolution against revolutions and the complacency they bring.
For this reason, metal embraces a type of naturalism that prizes the tempestuous amorality of nature over the human desire for peace, unity, and mutual non-aggression via methods of control. It rebels against humanity and embraces the world of nature that terrifies normies.
It also worships power. Metal adores that which is powerful and hates that which is weak. It seeks the human experience not through individualism, but like the Romantic poets, being lost in a storm or the tectonic conflicts of history, spirituality, and natural selection.
Metal, like hardcore punk, could be seen as the first anti-normie music in that it rejects the desire of the normal autodomesticated democratic citizen for a world without conflict. Metal embraces conflict, death, loss, disease, and horror as a means of waking up to the possibilities of existence.
One reason that emulations of metal fail so hard is that tying together metal techniques without this spirit of escaping humanism tends to make very loud normie rock. The music that ordinary people desire is an escape from conflict into the desires of the flesh and social impulse toward enforced unity.
For this reason, metal serves as an opposite to rock, blues, jazz, and other forms of popular music. These aspire to a social function of bringing people together; metal separates people from society and connects them to a primitive lawless nature that is nonetheless more real than human projections.
Whenever metal falls from this spirit, as with glam metal and alternative metal, it becomes weak and fails to hold together. Metal rejects the productification of art as well as the manipulative and passive spirit of the equal importance of all humans in rejection of natural selection.
From a distant view, metal like its riffs embraces the variety of patterns, and how from the simplest elements new worlds can be fashioned. It finds beauty in darkness, distortion, terror, disease, horror, and warfare. It accepts death so that it can discover life.
Metal has strayed from its spirit of asserting nothingness against false somethings comprised of human desires for an end to the conflict inherent to life. Other than a few standouts, most of what comes out now could be given The Standard Review:
Like most other bands, this release features circular songs but uses a slightly different technique, suite of imagery, or theater of production values. There is some loudness and aggression then some other parts that are softer that make it seem different right now. It’s okay if you like that kind of thing.
As warned years ago, it has been assimilated by rock, and now exists as an ingredient for rock bands to throw into their mix, sort of like adding trumpets or a chorus of eunuchs. Metal has become a symbol, like how characters in movies drive motorcycles to show that they are edgy.
Most likely, the genre begun with Black Sabbath culminated in black metal, at which point all of the devices of advanced music were at hand, including melody, and the next step involved moving to something more like classical or jazz, advanced instrumental music.
At that moment, however, the audience was already shifting to the angsty teen types who used to frequent Hot Topic, and they had no interest in anything more than edgier rock. The support that metal needed to go to the next level no longer existed because the hipsters and normies had taken over.
For so long as metal remains popular, this condition will continue; the music industry is a pyramid scheme where bands throw in money for minimal gain, and fans buy uncritically for whatever is new, and this fuels the substitute faux metal that dominates these days.
If heavy metal wishes to return, it must first become outsider again, sort of like Donald Trump with his mugshot or Robert Downey Jr after his jail sentence. It must no longer be safe enough to be edgy but saleable, and become unsaleable through extremity.
The real “culling of the weak” that is needed here is the rejection of the audience that currently favors metal by creating music that they cannot follow. In short, metal must pick up where it left off, recognizing that it will take a decade before what it is doing catches on.
There is no money in this and minimal glory, nor are there the industry positions that go to those who have bands that get listed on the big internet sites. For this reason, it will remain a labor of love and art, and be entirely alienated from anything in the mainstream.
Luckily for metal, the time for such a move is now ripe. Trust in institutions, including media, has hit historic lows. Nothing that the normal bourgeois crowd is doing is working well, and almost everything that supports their worldview is failing like a second collapse of the Roman Empire.
But for now, we soldier on here, separating the wheat from the chaff. And the chaff is quite prodigious.
Carthus – Images of Tyranny: rather bouncy galloping speed metal with mixed in deathcore and metalcore influences, this band injects “folk” via mid-paced passages that emphasize harmony with the theme, but really is just very energetic heavy metal that sticks to a theme and hammers it, which makes it easy to listen to but very hard to reach for again since none of these ideas or presentation are new or particular to this band.
Marduk – Memento Mori: this album demonstrates human projection, namely that if you listen to it, the songs are not badly constructed and show some creativity in playing with old metal tropes in new forms, although they are a bit circular, but when you walk away from it, it never enters your head despite the catchy riffs, simply because it is an arithmetic variation on a known quantity and therefore has no known use when you can just listen to the early albums from the Big Eight black metal bands instead.
Alkaloid – Numen: mix some Voivod into your Pantera, update it with tropes from alternative rock and nü-metal, and you get this band which ultimately goes nowhere despite some impressive technical chops mainly because these songs stay stuck in the rock world of basic harmonies and minimal conflict, at which point they start to sound like a rather lengthy commercial for electric SUVs.
La Menade – Reversum: this entire pseudogenre sounds the same, namely alternative rock songs dressed up with some metal riffs that depend on stop-start rhythms to keep your attention, while the vocals drive the entire song in a circular pattern with offbeat interruptions, leading to a sense of having been submerged in a giant vat of normie culture masquerading as some kind of edgy posture like using hard rock in movies to show a character might be more likely to say something controversial.
Incantation – Unholy Deification: when people refer to “filler” riffs, they mean that a band created a big fat riff they liked and then strung it together with fairly predictable riffs or genre convention riff types, and so you get a few moments of clarity with the big riff then a muddle of other stuff that is just there as connective tissue, which is the case in this album of fairly obvious but well-crafted riffs swimming in a sea of ChatGPT-generated Incantation riffs, which makes it a solid B but probably not enduring, sadly.
Car Bomb – Meta: this type of band, as it has been around for a long time, always feels like it is designed for scenes in a movie rather than in-depth listening because so much of it is just stunts and tricks to be ironic and contrarian vis-a-vis what would be expected from a big obvious riff, so time signatures flick around all over the place, “unexpected” stops and starts crash in, with odd noises and goofy solos, sort of like 1920s “futuristic” housing that just made everything out of boxes but in an odd order.
Krieg – Ruiner: the power of black metal was in the contrast it established within an atmosphere to reveal a hopeful emptiness within, which makes sense in a time where everything is basically a lie that must be destroyed, but instead here we get a crossover of Darkthrone and late model Finnish black metal that has almost zero internal contrast but instead seems to be a delivery vehicle for blarting vocals and furious drums, leading to the atmosphere of a waiting room at a Memphis HIV clinic when the power browns out.
Abyss of Hel – “YRU”: this starts with a hybrid between Venom and basic death metal, then transitions into melodic metal, making for a song that is half waiting for something to happen like watching a millennial horror film and half some initially exciting melodic material that fails to develop much, leading to a sense of confusion and entropy, but the full album may have more to it, since sometimes tracks like this are kick-starters for a sequence of tracks that play with the mood.
Cloak – Black Flame Eternal: people who never experienced the classic underground metal years of 1983-1993 find themselves thirsting for it, so you get this band of assembled black metal techniques mixed in with some bluesy heavy metal and influences from Rammstein and Tool, but the songs are only catchy and never go anywhere else, nor do their parts relate enough to make them memorable, so like all psotmodern things, this is hollow and fruitlessly adorned endlessly.
Fury of a Dying Planet – “Repetition to Extinction”: big-concept metal has always been popular but now seems to exclusively repeat media tropes handed down by six corporations, which makes it fall flatter than a Voivod album, and this combination of metalcore and heavy metal works on the level of a catchy song but still operates on the principle of loops with layers of different vocals, making it fall even flatter about halfway through when nothing has emerged from the basic pattern.
Beneath The Hollow – Misery Loves You: throw Pantera, emo, and alternative rock into a blender and you get this rather screamy and bouncy music which is short on riff forms but long on “atmosphere” which is developed mostly through the vocals over background music that sounds like the “Forensic Files” theme given a bit more downstroke, although the quality of melodic riffing is higher than the norm.
Wrack – Altäre der Vergänglichkeit: DSBM was enough of a scam, but now you get “atmospheric black metal” that is basically Venom and Dimmu Borgir riffs set to post-metal pacing and chord progressions, with lots of dramatic vocals to distract you from the fact that the core of this release is just slow heavy metal that is not particularly interesting or relevant.
Antirope – Amnesia: labels keep talking about bands as the future, but this music sounds very 1950s to me, with crooner vocals over metalcore and the same song patterns that were probably around when Otzi the Iceman took his first steps; the vocals are the lead instrument and the guitars, drums, and bass provide background which is somewhat interesting in the moment but does not add up to much over time, leaving a profound feeling of plastic emptiness.
Hail Conjurer & Absolute Key – Trident and Vision: while the crossover of metal and ambient industrial has been around for some time, these two bands do a track each and then collaborate on three, with lots of Godflesh influence and an attempt to make a kind of post-metal version of primal black metal, even though most of that was borrowed from the back tracks of Streetcleaner without the aggro parts, making a pleasant listen of disjointed parts melding together like a drive through an abandoned city.
Thornafire – Leprosario Lazareto: there is no way that you can make carnival music into metal and this release operates too much on contrast and deliberate ironism or doing the unexpected relative to the first step, which makes for a release of disjointed parts that do not talk to each other, therefore never coalesces into much of a listening experience despite a few creative riffs.
Kill Cømmand – Hostile Takeover: this is not so much a band as an impression of the favorite albums of those in the band, and songs move between the right types of riff and lead guitar to maintain an atmosphere, and if nothing ever develops, you are expected to like this tribute to the past for its revival of the 1980s spirit, which it does admirably but outside of nostalgia (a spirit killer) this has little appeal to the current listener.
Algebra – Pulse?: this band tries to make faithful late 1980s aggressive speed metal while mixing in a bit of melody and slightly more complex riff layering, achieving a more listenable version of this ancient genre despite being reliant mostly on riff and vocal tropes from before they were born, but without the riff dialogue expanding context that death metal brought to the picture this feels more like a warm bath of nostalgia than something one can move forward with.
Orbit Culture – Descent: did you want your Pantera style angry frat boy ranting hidden in the midst of melodic post-metal and a power metal slash emo crossover? Then you will love this, despite it repeating patterns we have heard since the early noughts with simply a little more panache and ability to tie together simplistic melodies into a good pop tune, although the Ministry influence on percussion is sort of fun. I fell asleep harder than during the first season of CSI: Miami (this show sucks ass).
Akurion – Come Forth to Me: the problem with modern metal is that it is based on distraction not continuity through changing context, therefore like a postmodern novel all the fireworks are at the surface and the inner theme is simplified to the point of incoherence, which means you get lots of showoff riffs and sudden tempo changes, but it does not add up to much, and so listening is both exhausting and tedious without much inspiration.
Sylosis – A Sign Of Things To Come: this feels straight of the 1970s but updated with modern rap-vocals and Pantera bounce riffs, falling into old patterns that would have been about hot chicks and drinking whisky but now have some kind of profundity that no one cares about except as a personal ego-decoration, in some with emo choruses and basically circular structures that aim for repetition so you can get full value for these sick dope riffs, but really this appeals only to the MTV continuation/legacy audience.
My Lament – The Season Came Undone: the latest trend in metal is normal person music pretending to be metal, and this nearly riffless material shows us why this produces unsatisfying music, because other than a few brief passages of guitar the instrument is used to accompany a fairly normal bittersweet pop song that is driven by the vocals and repeats themes in a big circle, leading to what we might call quasi-gothic chill out music with slow heavy metal riffs.
Dragonheart – The Dragonheart’s Tale: if you want Iron Maiden influenced power metal that seems to like sea shanties and “pirate metal,” cobbled together in the type of overly-emotional vocal music that serves as “churn,” or working off a common theme with typical reactions to it, which then develops to nowhere but a vocal swell and then a repetition of the major theme of each song, sort of like the music on children’s television programs.
Antania – “The God Complex”: our gimmick is using electronic samples to emulate stringed instruments, but the song is the same old alt-rock nu-mu jive that bored us to death in the past, with those lumbering gorilla grooves and jump scares to keep the Hot Topic kids masturbating while the video distracts them from the utter failure of everything and their future as assistant vice managers at a CVS store in Rest Area, WI.