At some point during the past year and a half, heavy metal music saw a sudden boost in its street cred. It morphed from a musical genre scorned by mainstream critics and the indie elite to one lavished with complimentary adjectives; metal is now de rigueur and avant-garde. One minute, kids were wearing Iron Maiden T-shirts to be ironic; the next, because Iron Maiden, like, rules. For yours truly, I began to notice metal’s inexplicable crossover into hipster circles last year while perusing the new releases at my favorite indie music store, Saskatoon’s Vinyl Diner.
Thanks to an owner who prices used metal albums based on his obvious contempt for the genre, the store has always been a fabulous source of ridiculously cheap heavy music (my greatest coup being a three dollar copy of Opeth’s Deliverance). On this day, what did I see on the shelf, nestled between such comparative fey albums by M83 and Matmos, but Mastodon’s lavishly packaged, progressive metal masterpiece Leviathan. Vinyl Diner, one of the best music shops in Western Canada, the setting for many an uncomfortable moment where searches for indie rock nuggets often turned into inexpensive metal CD purchases (“Hey, do you have anything by the Fall? No? Okay, I’ll take this six buck copy of God Hates Us All instead”), had dared to admit the heretofore unthinkable: metal had actually become cool.
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Once the obsession of surly teenagers who loitered in shady corners of their high schools during the 1980s (I’ll readily admit, I was one of them), and long thought dead by many, a victim of the grunge and alternative rock explosion of the early ’90s, metal had been lurking out of sight from the mainstream consciousness. It was evolving and bastardizing at an astonishing rate; bands were sprouting up and branching off in different directions so rapidly, Pete Frame would have had a heart attack trying to trace it all. Had it not been for the “nu-metal” fad of the late ’90s, the more classic form of heavy metal might have exploded sooner. Instead, over the past few years, as the shelf life of the Limp Bizkits, Mudvaynes, and Godsmacks of the world quickly dwindled, the real talent was waiting in the wings, and today, after 15 years, metal in the truest sense has risen from the grave, stronger, more eccentric, and more challenging than ever before.
What’s most intriguing is how there hasn’t been one title in particular that has acted as a catalyst for the burgeoning metal movement; instead, multitudes of bands seem to be hitting their strides at the same time. The last three years have yielded an absolute bevy of first-rate material, and for once, the CD-buying public has responded. At one end of the spectrum, you have the traditionalists, the bands who choose to remain within the rigid confines of whatever style they play; and at the other, the innovators who, despite equally strong contributions from the traditionalists, are providing the most thrills these days, taking metal’s sound in daring new directions. People, both those in metal circles and curious first-time listeners, are taking notice.
There’s always been a hunger for guitar-driven music that attacks the senses, that pushes brutality to new extremes, and the fact that the growing critical popularity of aggressive bands like Isis, Blood Brothers, and Lightning Bolt, not to mention much name-dropping by uber-hipsters like Sasha Frere-Jones and John Darnielle, has helped elevate metal in the eyes of the mercurial indie rock crowd. While it’s great to see the indie scenesters embracing something other than New York post-punks or Canadian collectives, it’s the kids who are most responsible for metal’s resurgence. The young underground bands have simply stuck to what has always worked best: hitting the road to play for whoever would take them, and cultivating strong, fiercely loyal fanbases. The younger generation supporting metal’s new renaissance is armed with money burning holes in its pubescent pockets — it’s no surprise that many bands have seen their album sales double with each subsequent release. Like the American thrash metal underground proved 20 years ago, word of mouth is always the best way to promote a young metal band, and it’s starting to pay off for numerous acts today.
After a decade of turgid Alice in Chains retreads, the pulverizing but limiting mid-’90s industrial craze, and the repetitive, churning riffs of nu-metal, it was time for a change. What a change we got. Europe has exported an incredible number of traditional, subgenre-specific artists who excel at their craft. Operatic goth metal is thriving, especially the bands fronted by charismatic female singers: Lacuna Coil, Beseech, After Forever, and the best and the most popular of the bunch, Nightwish, have all brought a strong, melodic sensibility that was long missing, becoming massive crossover successes on the other side of the Atlantic. Arch Enemy, old-school purveyors of the nimble riffs and dual guitar harmonies of classic power metal, are on the cusp of the big time in North America. The melodic-tinged, Swedish-born death metal hybrid known as “the Gothenburg sound” is still going strong, thanks to the resilient In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, Soilwork, and young upstarts Scar Symmetry. The pulverizing, free-form antics of death metal continue with the prodigious Necrophagist and two of Poland’s greatest, Vader and Behemoth. And while underground black metal fans will forever accuse Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth of being sellouts and not “kvlt” enough (don’t ask, it’s a goth thing), both bands reached thrilling, bombastic new heights on Death Cult Armageddon and Nymphetamine, respectively. Hell, even those lovable, grease-painted goofs in Immortal still sound great.
As consistently good as the European haul has been over the past few years, the majority of groundbreaking music has come from the States, and continues to do so in 2005. The more experimental side of metal has been flourishing recently, if not in sales, then in critical acclaim; recent albums by Isis, Neurosis, Sunn O))), and Pelican (all much more expansive, doom-laced music driven by thunderous waves of layered guitars, trancelike drones, and hypnotic rhythms) have garnered considerable praise. Often more post rock and improvisational jazz than pure, simple metal, the artsier side of the genre (call it “art metal”, “post metal”, or “NeurIsis”) is a fascinating one, but for all the high praise a record like Isis’ Panopticon has received (deservedly so), that album has been bested by a new disc by young Peoria, Illinois band called Minsk.
Curiously named after the Belarusian city, Minsk sounds as chilly and grim as its namesake — it’s enough to make one wonder if there’s a balalaika band on the other side of the world calling itself Peoria. On its very confident debut, Out of a Center Which Is Neither Dead nor Alive (At a Loss Recordings), Minsk adds more of an introspective, psychedelic tinge to the gut-rumbling din of distorted chords, as if both Acid Mothers Temple and Guapo had joined Neurosis onstage. Boasting multiple lead vocalists, the songs range from wracked screams to soaring, Tool-style melodies, but it’s the sheer instrumental versatility of this band that is the most exhilarating: one second, they’re pulling off a brilliant Melvins imitation, and the next, they’re off on tangents that include acoustic guitars, saxophone, and Rhodes piano. On its six-track, 66-minute album, Minsk tosses in enough variety to hold our attention throughout, leaving us to bob along in anticipation of either a swooping undertow or a crashing tidal wave. Out of a Center is sonically adventurous, but theatrical as hell, a charismatic record truly deserving of the adjective “colossal”.
While Lamb of God has spearheaded the American metalcore movement (with Shadows Fall and God Forbid hot on its heels), its hybrid of muscular Pantera riffs and Megadeth-style progressive tendencies spawning dozens of imitators in a short time span, the biggest influence of the burgeoning scene (dubbed by some wise-asses “The New Wave of American Metal”) has been, ironically, punk. This shouldn’t be surprising, as punk, like it or not, has always been a strong influence on metal, going back to the early ’80s: Anthrax co-opted the crunchy, mosh-inducing breakdowns of New York hardcore; Metallica adopted the streetwise look and attitude (not to mention some killer Misfits covers); and Slayer derived its blistering “speed metal” from hardcore acts like GBH and Minor Threat.
Today it’s not much different, as those sounds are still detectable in much of the best contemporary American metal. The big difference, though, is how the bands are bringing in such sounds and creating something entirely different than 20 years ago. By adding elements of jazz fusion, hardcore punk, and strong vocal melodies to its inimitable brand of “math metal”, the Dillinger Escape Plan turned the genre on its ear with 2004’s Miss Machine. Around the same time, veteran Converge expertly blurred the line between punk and metal on its well-received You Fail Me, and Canadian bands Cursed and Buried Inside followed suit this past year with fine releases of their own. Most impressively, North Carolina’s Between the Buried and Me is responsible for Alaska, one of the most unique, nay, demented metal releases of the year.
If Opeth has tweaked death metal into its own unrivaled brand of music, so too has Between the Buried and Me done the same with metalcore. The most daring American metal album of the year, Alaska (Victory Records) draws from a staggering array of influences, from the more progressive side of punk (At the Drive-In, Coheed and Cambria), to seemingly every subgenre in metal today, balancing pure technical flash and economy so well, it trounces the Mars Volta’s scatterbrained opus Frances the Mute. The opening moments of “All Bodies” are a perfect microcosm of the entire record, as we’re treated to touches of chugging death metal riffs, goth melodies, and power metal guitar harmonies in two minutes, before exploding into a jaw-dropping, ornate yet beastly black metal breakdown; it might sound like pure insanity, but there’s a sense of control to the music, as it never strays too far away from its starting point. The Opeth-like “Selkies: The Endless Obsession” and the epic “Backwards Marathon” not only showcase this band’s highly impressive musicianship, but also the vocal range of lead howler Tommy Rogers, who is just as proficient at delivering multi-octave melodies as he is at powerful, death-style growls and ee-vil black metal screeches. Like the Dillinger Escape Plan, Between the Buried and Me find a way to make the progressive sound accessible, right down to the pair of startling interludes: the Dead Can Dance-goes-metal “Medicine Wheel” and the bossa nova stylings (that’s right) of the ironically titled “Laser Speed”. At one point, Rogers audaciously declares, “2005, welcome to perfection” and sure enough, Alaska, in all its psychotic glory, comes awfully, awfully close.
While the Red Chord is just as madly ambitious as Between the Buried and Me, it goes about things in a slightly different way. Combining the basic elements of metalcore with a strong grindcore sensibility, the New England band might pull off the inconceivable by bringing the ferocious, controlled chaos of grind to the mainstream. The ultimate underground sound, grindcore has been largely a cult phenomenon dating back to the late ’80s and early ’90s, when bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, and Suffocation pushed the proverbial envelope as far as it could possibly go, delivering cacophonous blasts of noise, highlighted by fierce, atonal vocals and machine gun-like drumming. The Red Chord’s most recent album, Clients (Metal Blade), follows that formula closely, but most importantly, throws in plenty of metalcore touches, from guitar solos to stomping breakdowns, with vocalist Guy Kozowyk hollering away, sounding a lot like Napalm Death’s Barney Greenaway. The overall effect is crushing; clocking in at a comfortable 37 minutes, the album’s first half-hour is appended by the surprisingly engaging midtempo insrumental “He Was Dead When I Got There”, which hearkens back to Metallica’s “Orion”. No question, Clients features some incredibly dense music, but the way the Red Chord shifts tempos and keeps listeners on the edges of their seats makes this album as good an introduction to grindcore as you’ll find.
These days, metal continues its rebirth, rising to greater prominence. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker have started treating the subject with respect. Lamb of God, Mastodon, and Shadows Fall have all made the jump to major labels. Opeth’s recent masterwork, Ghost Reveries, debuted at #64 in the US, Arch Enemy’s Doomsday Machine at #87, and even cult fave Clutch cracked the Hot 100 for the very first time. Day-long concert tours Ozzfest, Sounds of the Underground, and Gigantour brought the metal to the masses this past summer. And in the ultimate proof that metal is back, those Zappa-loving Armenians in System of a Down are selling out arenas across the country. And that’s not all: Vinyl Diner now stocks High on Fire’s Blessed Black Wings and Pelican’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw alongside the Decemberists and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Love it or hate it, metal’s back on the upswing, and trust me on this one — there’s a heckuvalot to love.