Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The State of the Metal Address pt. 1

I apologise for the lack of new art content. I am building up a buffer of work to start posting in the new year. Until then, I hope to offer you a few articles in the style of my older attempts at blogging. Working through various issues that have been on my chest, etc. First, an issue close to my heart: HEAVY FUCKING METAL.

The New Elitism

The evolution of heavy metal can be seen easily as a Hegelian dialectic. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. New genress and ideas are met with, and tempered by, reactionary elitist tendencies. From these emerge the synthesis. We have seen this at least twice before in the history of metal, as seen as a distinct subculture. First there was the hair metal crisis. Then there was nu metal. Now, metal is undergoing its third great crisis. This time a combination of factors are at work, not just musical but social. The effects of the digital revolution on metal culture are being worked through, at the same time as a raft of new pretender genres, most particularly post-metal and deathcore, have risen up. In response, elitism is now stronger than it has ever been.

Once again, this is a long, bloody, drawn out struggle. And once again, it is primarily a contest between Europe and America.

The Degeneracy Thesis

One thing you will notice about every widely criticised and reviled permutation of metal is this: it is american. Hair metal, nu metal, groove metal, deathcore, post-metal, sludge, thrash revival, slam death and USBM. All have been (or are being) actively reviled by one section of the metal scene or another, some universally, some more selectly.

Part of this is racism, conscious or unconscious. Whilst metal traditionalists have broadly tolerated (or actively embraced) the inclusion of such un-metal elements as folk, prog, classical and (to a certain degree) industrial and ambient music into the metal milieu, they often remain strongly opposed to any metal band attempting to inject, say, funk, reggae or hip-hop into the metal sound (this in wilful defiance of metals late 60's origins as the heaviest possible form of electric blues). Limited exceptions have been made for jazz (in the form of death metal fusion acts such as Cynic and Atheist) and the hardcore heroin blues of sludge has been making steady inroads (often to much protest) for a while now. Some of this is explicable. There are startlingly few examples of a successful rock/rap fusion of any sort, and rap metal normally manages to combine turgid, bargain basement hardcore riffing with lyrical parts that scarcely ever advance beyond embarrasing. Much of it should at least be questioned.

Beyond this though, is simply a general strand of anti-americanism that has existed in European thought for centuries. This, often nowadays unconscious, assumption is that all American cultural products are somehow weaker than European ones. It is very hard for American metal ideas to really make any headway in Europe*. This, as well as a fundamental difference in attitude among many American metalheads on the ground has led to a large degree to the ghettoisation of American metal culture, which is another reason why it often provides the boldest challenges to the metal status quo.

Fuck [Your Band Here]

Elitism and bizarre feuds are nothing new in the metal scene. Previously, however, feuds were generally geographic; the most famous (and patently stupid) ones probably being the 90's feuds between the Norwegian and Swedish black metal scenes, and the Norwegian and Finnish black metal scenes. The changing nature of the way metal is consumed has rendered these localist squabbles rather anachronistic, whilst opening wide new opportunities for every form of elitism and insularity imaginable.

First, you have to remember that not so very long ago extreme metal in particular was really underground. If you lived outside of a few particular cities on either side of the Atlantic, your opportunites for gigs were rare, and the only way to hear new bands was through mail order samplers, magazines, tape trading and friends. Labels and distros built their customer base on an almost personal, one to one basis. Cameraderie was high; almost everyone was a committed fan, and everyone was involved intrinsically in keeping the scene alive, whether it was by being in a band or writing for a zine, or just by buying records and t-shirts and telling your friends about your latest discovery.

What changed this was the internet. Old timers often moan that online record shopping and band websites have destroyed much of the mystique and allure of being a metal fan. More importantly, it made being an extreme metal fan easy. it was no longer necessary to dedicate time and effort writing to bands and labels or tracking down obscure releases. Anyone could have anything that was in print on their doorstep within the week, and the more unscrupulous, once filesharing took off, could have it on their computer at the click of a button. This, in particular, is a game changer. It is now possible, in the eyes of many, for people to harm the metal scene just by listening to the music. With no barriers in place to keep out the interested amateur, and literally tens of thousands of metal bands only a few clicks away, it is now a free for all.

A Way of Life

At this point it may be a good idea to try to explain to the average reader why these issues are important to the average metalhead. If you've never been seriously involved in a subculture it can be hard to understand the feelings one has for it. Once you go past the stage of the teenage phase, and become a dedicated follower, you have generally invested a large amount of resources, both emotional and financial, in the subculture in question. I myself have spent thousands of pounds just attending festivals, not to mention all the CDs, vinyl, t-shirts and other gear. Very nearly half my life has been soundtracked by metal. To the committed metalhead, whether something is metal or not, however ridiculous this may seem, is not just a question of semantics. It is a serious issue. Metal is very important to some people, me included, and casual fans, false metallers...yes, POSERS. have always been the biggest threat to its continued existence as a cohesive concept. This was the issue at the root of the hair metal and nu metal problems. Both were populist genres, beloved of casual fans who contributed little value to the metal scene, whilst diluting its very meaning. The threat now is that these weekenders can infiltrate essentially every part of the metal scene. Although there are very visible genres**, such as deathcore and post-metal, seemingly designed just to taunt the dyed in the wool denim and leather crowd, there has been an influx of new fans across the board. Some of them have started bands, and not all of them are welcome.

...PART 2 COMING SOON


*Often they must first pass through the intermediary filter of Britain. This is not just something that is true of metal; most of the oldest European punk groups cite the influence of The Clash and The Sex Pistols and never mention the Ramones or the New York Dolls, and for a long time European hardcore owed far more to London and Leeds than it did Washington or LA.

**One of the main signs for spotting a metal genre that is worryingly out of place is wardrobe that doesn't chime with the rest of the metal milieu. Whilst recognisable (though perhaps, to the untrained eye, subtle) differences of dress according to taste and geography are part of the regular diversity of the metal scene, problem genres tend to stick out like a sore thumb. The standard metallers uniform (male and female) is jeans, trainers or boots, a band shirt (normally black) and long hair. Against this, genres such as nu metal, with its dreadlocks, parachute trousers and wallet chains, or post-metal with its earthtones, often short hair and ear plugs, stand out a mile. Hair metal, which required everyone to, where possible, dress like transexual space hookers from a bad acid trip, is a particularly egregious example.