-By Zack Sigel
I met Unlocking the Truth during the summer of the Ferguson protests, in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and my interview with the band ended shortly after I asked them about it. We were at AfroPunk, an annual festival celebrating black voices, and they are three African-American preteens in a popular metal band. In previous interviews, the band had given the same answers so often that it was starting to sound like boilerplate, and my own interview with them was starting to sound a little familiar. But I had always planned to ask Unlocking the Truth about Ferguson — Michael Brown was only a few years older than them when he died — and Alec Atkins, the band’s guitarist, was giving a thoughtful if measured assessment when their manager, the TV producer Alan Sacks, stepped in and pulled the plug. “That’s not something to talk about with them,” he said.
Sacks may be a micromanager, but Unlocking the Truth is a micro band. For one, none of them are old enough to drive, and none benefit from, say, the acquired wisdom of economic triumph. That is all to say that the band acts its age, and even their rising celebrity is not without its qualifications. One still must look within the lesser-emphasized acts in a music festival’s lineup to find their name, usually in smaller print. In a recent flyer for an upcoming AfroPunk festival in Atlanta, Unlocking the Truth received lower billing than the rap group Ratking, even though Ratking, unlike their young festival-mates, has never played Colbert or Fallon.
This slight can be chalked up to a number of factors, and all of them have to do who the band is and what they hope to accomplish in the shifting environment of commercial music. Metal has by its own designs never been a popular genre, largely because it is constantly negotiating the fine line between capitalist enterprise and independent expression. As a rule, there exists an inverse relationship between the proclivity of any artist to experiment and innovate and this same artist’s ability to move units. Nowhere is this more true than in metal, which arrives already handicapped by polite society’s preconception of it as perhaps antisocial or violent. In order to push the pendulum in the opposite direction, metal has had not only to soften its edge, but to become more palatable to more people. To see what this looks like in practice, the career of Metallica is a particularly fascinating example. Once heralded as a lightning-fast thrash metal juggernaut, Metallica’s more recent offerings have been dismissed as undercooked and embarrassing, with one especially unfortunate collaboration so bad it almost ruined somebody else’s (Lou Reed) career.
The result of all this toning down and shutting up could be seen in the early-aughts rise of nu metal, which sounded like metal music but in effect was little more than a potent soundtrack for the rise of vampire fiction. There are obvious technical differences between nu metal and the traditional heavy metal that preceded it, not least of which is that its syncopated guitar style makes it both easier to play and easier to consume. It is loud, but not too loud; abrasive, but not excruciating. It can sound like a bad pop album, complete with many similar musical components, which is enough to get it on the radio. But nu metal’s coup de grace may be its own soft predilection for wickedness or violence, aping true metal’s demonic elements without necessarily offending Middle America.
Unlocking the Truth must have discovered metal at this juncture. Time and again, they cite as their most important influence the band Disturbed, one of the most notorious nu metal acts of all. Those of us who lived through the nu metal phenomenon will remember Disturbed for “Down With the Sickness”, a track so fraudulent it is actually beyond parody, but we may just as soon want to forget that gloomy kids and adolescent metalheads could hear nu metal like a personal epiphany. Atkins, joining with Jarad Dawkins and Malcolm Brickhouse, grew up together in East Flatbush, a neighborhood that is over ninety percent African-American. They bonded over a shared appreciation of metal in a community that expected them to prefer hip hop and shamed them if they did not. Coming together to form Unlocking the Truth was about emulating their heroes; unbeknownst to them, they were emulating a corporate asset’s successful branding strategy.
When I finally wrote my story on the band last year, I speculated on two points. The first was that the $1.8 million record deal that put Unlocking the Truth on the map was meant to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And for a while, it was: Unlocking the Truth appeared between the pages of magazines as disparate as People and Terrorizer and on main stages for rock superstars as huge as Marilyn Manson and Queens of the Stone Age. But I also predicted that the band, through no fault of its own, would never actually see that money. At the time, I wrote that I hoped I would be disproven. And I was not.
Early this year, in a new documentary starring the band, it emerged that they were trying to leave Sony, meaning the promised millions would disappear overnight. As its director, Luke Meyer, explained to The Daily Beast, “The $1.8 million is what happens if you add up all their advances for five records, and it increases in amount with each successive album.” But “in order to go beyond their advance, they need to sell over 250,000 copies of a single album, which these days is a bit of a pipe dream.” It’s something worse than a pipe dream: it’s a bunch of executives looking out at all the Pandoras and Spotifys and Tidals and Apple Musics of the world and telling a bunch of middle schoolers raised in the cloud that they need to go out push records. Sony still stands to profit for any record that sells below that threshold, which makes the deal closer to a Ponzi scheme than a legitimate business partnership.
This could have been prevented if anyone involved knew anything about or actually appreciated metal. To everyone in the ostensible audience for these records — actual metalheads — Unlocking the Truth simply does not have the chops. In 2015, and with the entire catalogue of every metal outfit in history just a Spotify swipe away, there is little want or need for one that sounds like a nu metal band from 2002. Sacks is banking on the hope that you’ll be impressed by the novelty of their age (references to it cover the main page of their website), something that might dazzle readers of People but not actual fans of metal: we have always had, for example, the long-lasting and influential extreme metal band Enslaved, which was founded by a thirteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. For everyone else, once the excitement wears off, Unlocking the Truth will be stuck with supporters who don’t care for metal, and metalheads who don’t care for Unlocking the Truth. Which is why I asked them about Black Lives Matter in the first place. In lieu of an expensive record deal, Unlocking the Truth may still serve as a symbol for powerful black voices, and as a warning sign for artists of color of the ways capitalism may attempt to exploit their labor. But that, it seems, is up to their manager.