Metalheads hate change. Truth be told, most people hate change. We are creatures of habit. We go to Starbucks because we know what the coffee will taste like. Brand building is about developing a predictability construct to appease our base instincts that yearn for comfort. Usually, heavy music roots into our psyche at a time in our lives when we are still figuring out ourselves, filled with confusion and anger. Putting on a Slayer or Megadeth album was a sanctuary, making sense of a world that didn’t seem to really make sense. They weren’t just albums, they were lifeboats. “Music saved my life” might sound like a platitude, but we’ll never how true that statement is unless it’s gone.
So, when an important metal band pulls an about-face, and alters their core sound dramatically, fans take it extremely personally. The music is part of their autobiography. It’s not just a band; it’s part of your identity. Changing the sound is breaking the code of trust.
There are a handful of instances where these big left turns have shaken fanbases and divided careers. Being the oddball I am, I never take the changes the way most Metalheads do. I admire the guts it takes to challenge your audience, even if these moves are often viewed as artistically corrupt and commercially motivated. I thought it would be interesting to re-litigate some of these controversial albums with fresh ears and play devil’s advocate to highlight the positive angles.
Trivium – The Crusade (2006)
Main Criticism: Many thought that the album displayed too much Metallica influence, especially from a vocal standpoint.
Doc’s Takeaway: I love The Crusade. I loved it when it came out, and I love it now. I might even like it more than the guys in Trivium, who I argue with that they should play more of the tunes live. Did vocalist Matt Heafy take a strong nod from Metallica vocalist, James Hetfield? Of course he did, but I say,”So what?!?” If anyone is an heir apparent to Hetfield, it would be Heafy anyway. I personally enjoyed the gritty, melodic style over the sing-scream formula that is prominently common in modern Metal. “Ignition”, “Detonation”, “Becoming The Dragon”, “Tread The Floods”; I would put those as some of the catchiest and ripping songs in the Trivium catalogue. Plus, it has one of the most epically Metal album covers ever.
Anthrax – The Sound Of White Noise (1993)
Main Criticism: Anthrax fired their old singer, Joey Belladonna, abandoned their roots to become a more “serious” and modern band.
Doc’s Takeaway: The above criticism is probably true, but I think it’s all how you look at it. Anthrax made great, classic albums with Joey Belladonna. Of all of the bigger thrash bands, they were the only band that had a traditional ’80s style singer. They wrote songs about comic books, and had a generally silly and care free type of image as displayed with songs like “I’m The Man” and appearing on television comedy, Married With Children. I can only imagine seeing the world change around you and wanting to mature and evolve. Although the John Bush era didn’t ultimately pan out, The Sound of White Noise remains an awesome album with singles like “Only” and “Room For One More” being some of the best and most anthemic songs the band ever wrote. John Bush is an amazing vocalist, and I personally love his stint with Anthrax.
Earth Crisis – Slither (2000)
Main Criticism: Known as a pillar of the 1990s straightedge hardcore scene, Earth Crisis was viewed as jumping on the nu-metal bandwagon.
Doc’s Takeaway: Earth Crisis is one of the bands that deserves a lot of credit for laying the foundation for the modern hardcore and metalcore scenes. Their earlier influential releases were a bit before my time, and I have no emotional ties to them. So when I heard Slither, I was actually fairly impressed with Earth Crisis, for the first time really. It certainly had a direct nu-metal sound, but with a hard edge derived from their hardcore roots. Brilliant producer Steve Evetts delivered a crisp and powerful production, and the songs contained strong hooks their previously material just didn’t have. The band never became comfortable with the new sound,and neither did their fans. I can understand why the hardcore scene felt betrayed by Slither, but I enjoyed the record and it’s worth revisiting if you can pacify your biases.
Carcass – Swansong (1996)
Main Criticism: Carcass’ Death and Roll approach to Swansong was viewed as a bastardization of band’s extreme roots.
Doc’s Takeaway: Although I would rate Heartwork, Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious, and the recent Surgical Steel as the band’s best work, Swansong is a vastly underrated album. “Keep On Rotting In The Free World” was actually the first Carcass song I ever heard on local college metal radio station, 89.5 WSOU. To my young ears, it sounded like a heavier Megadeth with raspy, death vocals. It was completely unique. If heavy metal currency is measured in riffs, than Swansong is like the world bank: wealthy with tasty riffs galore. It does not have the blasting speed of Heartwork, but most of the melodic death metal hallmarks defined by Carcass are still represented on the album. It’s more simplistic and blues-y, but still distinctly Carcass. I also recommend the hidden gem, Wake Up And Smell The Carcass.
Slayer – Diabolus In Musica (1998)
Main Criticism: The previously unimpeachable Thrash juggernauts, Slayer, had finally lost their edge, succumbing to pressure to modernize in the height of Nu-Metal.
Doc’s Takeaway: Diabolus In Musica’s ties to nu-metal are overblown. Most of the evidence lies in lead single, “Stain Of Mind”, which has a main riff feel not dissimilar from Korn’s “Blind”. The similarity and bouncy vibe of the tune is difficult to argue. Slayer tuned down their guitars a full step as well, which was more in step with the times. Diabolus is certainly a groove album, that deviates from Slayer’s usual frenetic pace, but tracks like “Bitter Peace” and “Scrum” are true thrashers, and even an album like South of Heaven was considered slow and more groove-focused than previous albums. It’s unfortunate that it was also their last album produced by Rick Rubin, because I really enjoy the album’s raw and gritty presentation. Give it another spin if you can.
Candiria – What Doesn’t Kill You… (2004)
Main Criticism: Avant-garde jazz-metal-hip hop-hardcore pioneers had neutered the original potency and unpredictability of their sound.
Doc’s Takeaway: The truth is I might be building a straw man argument against What Doesn’t Kill You…, because the van accident that preceded the album’s creation and derailed the band’s career created a lot of sympathy in the local NY/NJ scene. Even though old fans weren’t being directly vocal about disliking the album, I could tell there was some whispers behind the scenes and less enthusiasm with regard to Candiria becoming too accessible. Despite the album being a big departure, I loved it from the get-go. Vocalist Carley Coma had made immense strides with very natural, almost reggae-influenced clean singing introduced. The songs were more traditionally structured, but the familiar Candiria sound was still intact with standout tracks like “Blood” hearkening to the past. Coincidentally, the band is reuniting this month to perform at the Black N’ Blue Festival in New York City.
Machine Head – The Burning Red (1999)
Main Criticism: Machine Head, a band at the time considered to be a shining light for ’90s Bay Area post-thrash, was called out for bandwagon jumping onto the rap metal trend popularized by Platinum sellings bands like Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit.
Doc’s Takeaway: It’s difficult to watch the music video above for “From This Day”, and not recognize Machine Head had been swept in the wave of nu-metal and rap rock of the late ’90s and early ’00s: from a visual standpoint with the shiny clothes and quirky hairstyles, to even utilizing a producer like Ross Robinson who was famous for producing nu-metal pioneers Korn and Slipknot. With that said, there are some important points that are a testament to the strength of The Burning Red. First, it should be said that Machine Head, in many ways, already had a strong nu-metal sound from the beginning of the band. They had straight forward, down-tuned, single note grooves, that probably influenced the nu-metal scene as much they were influenced by it. Considering that, there are only 2 rapping sections on the whole album (that I counted), but they are included on the opening track and the single, so that can skew the perception of the record. Secondly, Robb Flynn, has not shied away from the album, proclaiming it’s importance, even in hindsight. Songs like “The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears” and “The Burning Red” have been staples in their live show for years, and even “From This Day” has resurfaced in recent performances. Thirdly, I think the album could have benefitted from a different production. The band went away from their go-to guy, Colin Richardson. It would be very interesting to hear The Burning Red with the more classic Machine Head sound.
Throwdown – Venom & Tears (2007)
Main Criticism: The Orange County hardcore veterans had become Pantera clones.
Doc’s Takeaway: This criticism is tough to deflect, because clearly the band was compelled to take a huge risk to make an album that was heavily inspired by Pantera, especially Dave Peters’ vocal approach. This didn’t bother me for a few reasons: Pantera is probably one of the 5 best metal bands of all time, and if you are going to rip off anyone, rip off the best. Also, Pantera may have been the most influential band to the entire metalcore/new wave of American heavy metal movement, so singling out Throwdown may have been a bit unfair. Also, their previous sound could be described as a more nu-metal slant on Hatebreed, and that sound didn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation. Staying “hardcore” or within any confining subgenre sometimes means not taking any chances and never changing. As a champion of artists, I am always going to support bands that go with their heart, even if it fails. Although Venom & Tears is a cool record, I would categorize it as a transitional album, with the band truly nailing the landing on the following album, Deathless.
Metallica – Load and Reload (1996, 1997)
Main Criticism: The biggest and most important metal band in the world had made its full transition to a mainstream hard rock band, betraying it’s entire fanbase and heavy metal at large.
Doc’s Takeaway: I will go down swinging as one of the biggest Load & Reload defenders you will ever meet. They are hard rock albums; they just happen to be very good hard rock albums played by a band called Metallica. They still sound like Metallica, but Metallica playing rock music, not thrash metal. I understand that is a tough pill for longtime, diehard fans to swallow. Truth be told, Load is a much better album than Reload, and they would have been best served to take the best tracks from both albums to make one singular album (I make the same assertion for Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion dual LP). There is filler on both albums. The juxtaposition between the quality of Side A and Side B of each album is like the difference between The Matrix and The Matrix Revolutions. But, favorite tracks of mine like “Ain’t My Bitch,” “Unforgiven II,” “Devil’s Dance,” and “Bleeding Me” would probably be much more appreciated by metal fans had Clutch or Corrosion of Conformity written them. Even though I probably won’t convince you to like the albums if you already hate them, I still think we should be ok with a band like Metallica’s right to make albums like these and take risks. I also think these albums would be perceived differently if the production was more metallic like The Black Album.