Edging Toward the Mainstream: Extreme Music in 2013

Whatever else can be said about 2013, let it be known: black metal charted in the U.S. Twice. Deafheaven‘s Sunbather and The Wild Hunt by Watain both cracked the top 200, the former crawling all the way up to 130. Now, this sort of business blabber isn’t of real interest to the metal sphere, and could in any case be chalked up to the supreme erosion of music sales that, at this point, devalues any chart position greater than 50 to just mean “people know this band”. But I think something more is at work. These two albums are merely reaping the benefits of extreme music’s slow edging toward the mainstream.

Anyone with an internet connection or too much time on his or her hands can tell you this isn’t new. Brandon Stousy described 2011 as “the year I got sick of talking about black metal,” due in no small part by coverage of the genre in such major publications as the New York Times and Spin, at times more concerned with the murky, sensational backstory of the genre than its actual offspring. The Seer, Swans’ blistering gauntlet of an album, was named to Time Magazine’s “Best of 2012” list, which also included the Mountain Goats and Killer Mike. And PopMatters and Pitchfork have been covering this stuff for a long time, giving bands a profile that only grows as online media does.

What has changed, then, is the level of that penetration. Instead of invading year-end lists or the occasional rock venue, extreme musicians are getting featured in ways that most tuneful indie rock bands wish they could. The cover for Sunbather showed up in the reveal for the newest iPhones, as a companion for a pink body case. Noise artist Pharmakon played at the Decibel Festival on a showcase with Zola Jesus, and will soon be touring Russia with big-name electronic soundscaper the Haxan Cloak. Kylesa received as much coverage at the AV Club as in Decibel.

The Deafheaven examples seem most pertinent to me, as even though Sunbather is far from my favorite album of the year; metal or no, it showed up everywhere, and made 2013 Deafheaven’s year. The band toured America to ever-larger crowds, crossing over to Europe and currently Australia. And while Sunbather may be, in the metal world, a very melodic, accessible album, full of swooning guitar lines and plenty of entry points, in comparison with most of the music world it’s still a dense, sharp thing, the vocals screamed and buried, the drums thrashing about in whirlwind blastbeats. Imagine the unlikelihood of Immortal or Bathory featuring in major electronics ads! But that’s what we’re seeing now.

So what, exactly, does this all mean? First, that metal and extreme music is not being sold in major publications as only a freakshow; the music matters too. This was the angle most mainstream media took with black metal, both in the early ’90s and the last few years, focusing on church burnings, murders, suicide pacts, etc. Watain’s stage show certainly played into this element, full of severed animal heads and fountains of blood — realness indeterminate — and it undoubtedly brought them some serious fame, at least in the metal world. But Deafheaven, as well as artists like Pharmakon or Ireland’s Altar of Plagues, stands directly against this trend, dressing like normal, if hip, people. Strangeness is no longer an angle at this point, so if a publication is covering the band, its music has to take center stage.

Second, I think we’re about to see a serious glut of copycat bands and laptop noise artists, many of who formed this or last year. 2013, besides being a banner year for extreme music, was also seriously exhausting, with too many bands trading in post-rock heroics mucked up with blast beats and growls. By breaking previous genre constraints, Deafheaven and its peers have created a new template, similar to the crescendo-core bands that followed in the wake of Explosions in the Sky in the mid-2000s, that people of little imagination will simply copy and paste into far too many crossover-striving albums. Some of them even might succeed.

This style is so hot right now, and in the next year it might become more and more accepted. Unlikely as this may seem, it has parallels in the punk/noise and industrial scenes of the 1980s, out of which evolved mainstream-conquering juggernauts like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. This is not a “get your pitchforks and join the mob” moment, just an observation. To get from Throbbing Gristle to NIN is a huge step, but it makes more sense with a group like Deafheaven in the middle.

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