You’ve seen it a million times. Your favorite über-heavy underground band starts out on their first album heavy as nails. Album number two hits, and there are suddenly one or two clean-singing parts. It’s ok. You aren’t too upset; they kind of slipped it in under the radar. The next thing you know, the single from album number three is getting spins on your local rock radio station, and your favorite band that used to sound like Carcass now sounds like a tuned-down Nickelback with more double bass drum parts and a couple guitar squeals just to taunt you as to what they used to sound like.
That hypothetical scenario is only partially true given that most of you probably don’t mind the changes, and enjoy some hooks in your heavy. You grow with the band, or I’m sure plenty of the VH1 readers are much more into mainstream metal than the underground, extreme stuff anyway. So whether it bothers you or not, have ever thought about how or why this predictably happens with so many heavy bands?
The thing is, I know from first hand experience. My ex-band God Forbid started as grimy death-thrash-metalcore, sweating it out in the basements and VFW halls with hardcore and death metal bands. “Mind Eraser” is the first song we ever wrote as God Forbid in 1998.
Like I said: grimy. By the time we put out our sixth LP in 2012, we were doing an arena festival tour called Trespass America headlined by gold selling rock radio giants, Five Finger Death Punch. Our lead single from the album of the same name, “Equilibrium” was…I’ll say… a bit easier on the ears than “Mind Eraser”.
I’m not sure if it even sounds like the same band. How does this happen? We only had one member change in our 15 year existence, so that’s not really to blame.
You Want More
On the surface, that sounds like you want to make more money, but that’s not really it. As an artist, boundaries can be your enemy. If you want to be heavy, brutal, and fast all the time, go for it. I know my band had trouble with stagnation, though. On our first two albums, we explored all things fast and technical, but hadn’t learned how to keep a steady groove, or how not to write a song with 10 riffs in it. Extremity did not satisfy our creative urges. The challenge of trying something different was alluring. Can we write a “regular” song that was still interesting?
Look at a band like Mastodon: Their first album, Remission (2002), features no clean vocals at all, and is so heavy that all of the songs are named after heavy events like ‘mother punching’ and being marched and trampled upon by horses and fire ants.
Mastodon were able to maintain their identity, but changed at a glacial pace with each album that by the time 2011’s The Hunter, the band had a bona fide hit song that sounded like Queens of the Stone Age on steroids. “Curl of the Burl” is in deed a catchy diddy.
Mastodon is probably the perfect example of how to evolve without alienating old fans. I don’t even think their evolution was pre-meditated, and that’s why it probably worked. Fans often have a better bullshit detector than we give them credit for.
What You’re Doing Isn’t Working
All That Remains has a very interesting career arc. Their first release, Behind Silence & Solitude (2002), sounds like a mash-up of old Shadows Fall meets Arch Enemy with vocalist Phil Labonte utilizing a more monotone bark: no clean-singing.
This album didn’t gain much national attention, but in a way it worked to their favor because when they finally got some traction, it was partly due to the fact they added some very catchy clean-vocal parts on the 2003 track “Tattered On My Sleeve.” All That Remains finally (as Malcolm Gladwell would say) tipped with their breakout hit “This Calling” on 2006’s The Fall Of Ideals. They built their audience on the strength of their more palatable material, not their more extreme stuff.
Currently, the band is walking a perfect tight rope between the active rock radio world and the more “legitimate” metal scene that appreciates the band’s technical prowess and true heavy metal credentials. But to hear the difference between their debut and the 2012 hit ballad, “What If I Was Nothing” is staggering.
Your Tastes Change
This seems —and probably is— very obvious. If you are in your 30s or 40s, you may just not be into that same stuff as when you were 19. Although, metalheads are not nearly as trendy as mainstream music listeners, so we tend to hold steady with our favorite bands from our youth. Many of us are rocking out to Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Slayer in our advanced adulthood. Metal music is about tapping into the power center of frustration that just can’t articulate. You have to feel it in your chest and let it move through you. We usually find metal in our teens as the perfect conduit for our adolescent rage.
But if you’re in your mid 30s to 40s and you are just as angry as you were when you were 16, I honestly feel kind of bad for you. You have to allow yourself to grow and learn. Hopefully, age brings solace from wisdom and experience. It’s also important for me to note that I am not saying that if you continue to listen to extreme music as you age, you aren’t evolving. Some people just like what they like, and every person’s affinity for heavy music is not synonymous with anger. You can tell a band like Cannibal Corpse is NOT faking it. They have as much passion for brutal death metal as ever, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t versatile human beings.
In Flames is a band that has undergone quite an evolution, but I think they just wanted to try different things. They mastered the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound.
In Flames (1996)
Many people underscore how open, melodic, and musical the band was even in their early days, so I never found their incremental changes jarring. Have they introduced experimentations with electronics, nu metal flirtation, less metallic production, and lots of clean-singing? The answer is definitely yes, but I never feel like it’s for any other reason than because it’s what they are feeling, and how they want to express themselves at the moment. Despite the criticism, it has always felt like In Flames to my ears. They are always playing on the margins with varying degrees of success.
In Flames (2014)
This brings me to another point, which is how the European marketplace seems to take these changes a lot better than the US. In Flames has only gotten bigger and bigger in Europe while there seems to be more resistance stateside. Bands like Katatonia, Paradise Lost, Entombed, Amorphis have gone from full-on death metal to gothic and rock and sometimes back again over the course of 20 years. For some reason, Europe has allowed these bands to maintain careers while they experiment with their art.
Paradise Lost (1990)
Paradise Lost (2009)
Playing Accessible Metal Seems More Fun
I had two moments that changed my whole perspective in God Forbid’s early days. We had the opportunity to open locally for In Flames and (almost) open for Sevendust in the late ’90s. What I noticed is these bands looked like they were having a lot fun on stage: moving around freely, smiling, interacting with the crowd, strumming along to more simplistic music, or what appeared to be simple to my daft sensibilities. The music we were playing was very technical in a way where we had to be glued to our fretboards, and everything was so maniacal and angry. I was kind of jealous of those bands who seemed to really be enjoying their free-flowing jams.
You don’t think Hetfield isn’t having a blast while yelling “Gimme fuel! Gimme fire! Gimme that which I desire”? Rocking out to less demanding instrumentation is really fun, while the dudes in a technical death metal band like Nile look like they have to concentrate really hard on stage. Also, super technical music does not often come across well at live shows to move big crowds, nor does it sound great in big venues when you start graduating out of primarily being a club act.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the primal, explosive nature of God Forbid’s beginnings. Often, we want what we don’t have, or we focus on our shortcomings and not our strengths. Despite all of this, our evolution was mostly organic. With every change in sound, we would lose old fans, but gain new ones. By the last couple albums, perhaps the bands had veered too far away from our roots to maintain traction the whole way through. Most tended to be a fan of a certain era: (1.) Frantic, pummeling metalcore beginnings (1998-2002), (2.) New Wave of American Heavy Metal mastery (2003-2007), (3.) Prog Forbid with a member change and long gaps between albums (2009-2013). Some bands can walk the line perfectly and keep old fans while gaining new ones. I suppose we didn’t walk the line well enough.
The Industry Speaks – Ambition Responds
I would be lying if I said that the band didn’t feel pressure to fall in line with something more accessible, because it was often indicated to us by some in the industry that many doors would be closed to us with such an extreme approach. This was subconsciously bothersome, because we were not a group of people who wanted to be limited or marginalized. We would have never been satisfied trying to be the kings of the underground. The late ’90s and early ’00s was a strange time. The death metal boom of the early ’90s was gone, nu metal and rap rock were the biggest things in heavy music, and the New Wave of American Heavy Metal explosion was still a few years away. The idea of avant-garde and progressive bands like Animals As Leaders and Between The Buried And Me or brutal death metal rising out of the hardcore scene like Suicide Silence having robust careers was not even an inkling of a thought back then.
Perhaps ambition was our and many bands’ Achilles heel during the mid ’00s. Peers ventured out into more accessible territory like Shadows Fall on Threads Of Life (2007) and Bury Your Dead on It’s Nothing Personal (2009), and both received pushback from old fans, which triggered reversions to their traditional sound on follow-up releases.
If you look at our Ozzfest 2004 alumni, bands who were more commercially experimental have broken up or gone on periods of hiatus like God Forbid, Throwdown, and Bleeding Through, while bands that stayed in their familiar creative lanes are still going strong like Lamb of God, Everytime I Die, and Unearth. Slow and steady often wins the race. I don’t regret the ambitious actions though; big risk means big rewards, but also big failures if it doesn’t work out. You take the risk and accept the consequences.
Right now, I look at a band like Bring Me The Horizon, who is already a very successful act, but certainly has many of the tools to keep rising up the ladder. They started as scream-y, unspectacular deathcore.
Bring Me The Horizon (2006)
Continuing with the theme of the article, their transition is perhaps more stark than any other band I’ve mentioned, yet every step towards a mainstream sound just makes them bigger.
Bring Me The Horizon (2015)
They were a deathcore band, then prog-punk electro noise, then focused good-cop, bad-cap metalcore, and have essentially become an airy rock band having more in common with Linkin Park than any band one would consider underground or extreme. I don’t know if these changes were motivated by business, but they certainly have resulted in greater business success.
Having been in a band that experienced it’s own dramatic metamorphosis over a 15 year span gives me a good insight and hopefully an honest explanation of potential motivations into why and how heavy bands go from extreme to mainstream. I’m not sure why these alterations work for some bands and not for others, but the mechanics of this morphology never ceases to fascinate me.