“Straight up that hill,” a security guard in a bright yellow t-shirt says. He points. “We finally cleaned up all the blood.”
He’s talking to a man in a car, who is presumably also an employee of the PNC Bank Arts Center, at whose reception area I’m standing. I’m here to interview Matt Tuck, the lead vocalist for a huge metal project called Bullet for My Valentine. But I’m early, and less than two nights ago two young men were shot at a J. Cole/Big Sean concert.
The security guards don’t seem to notice me standing within earshot. “It’s not like you’re picking a needle out of a haystack,” the man in the car responds. He parks, and steps out. “If we keep having rap here,” he hollers, “that’s the shit you’ve gotta deal with.” That sounded like the kind of dog whistle we’re used to hearing from the #AllLivesMatter crowd, but before I can investigate further, the band’s tour manager is on the line and says that Tuck is ready to speak to me. Anyway, it seems reasonable to guess that the security guard won’t be applying this same standard to a band of Englishmen with “Bullet” literally in its name.
BFMV, as their fans call them, have headlined major festivals and sold millions of albums. It’s a feat that is not just impressive, but, in the age of streaming music, more and more difficult to replicate. They are playing tonight with Slipknot and Lamb of God, two of the biggest metal bands in the world, but they’ve played with bigger, and have reached a point in their career when they can finally step back and contemplate what their continued success means for both the band and for themselves as individuals. Metal has changed, and so has Bullet for My Valentine. Next week they release Venom, their fifth studio album release in the ten years since their album debut. Bullet has been around for even longer, when Tuck helped found the band under the name Jeff Killed John in 1998. That means that Tuck, who turned 35 this year, has been at this for roughly half his lifetime.
His first forays into music were playing covers of Metallica and Nirvana songs, and because BFMV’s music often wrestles with the theme of suicide, I asked Tuck if he remembered the day Kurt Cobain died. “That whole world didn’t really affect me mostly, because I was just too young to understand what was going on, what suicide was,” he said. “But as I grew up, and years have gone by, [Bullet for My Valentine] became a band, and became successful, and then I passed his age when he died. Looking at photos of him, obviously before he died, and me now, like way older than he is, it’s just weird, because it still feels like he’s this thing, this rock god, this untouchable thing. And it’s weird. I don’t know, it’s just a weird thing, how time just comes on.”
The Poison, their 2005 debut, is a quintessentially metalcore album— a heavy assault of down-tuned guitars that build to a point and then unleash hell. This is called the breakdown, which is to metalheads what the bass drop is to people who like EDM. It is also the most distinctive element of bands from that time. Back then, Tuck said, “We were literally just four guys just writing music and finding our feet as musicians. There was no gameplan, there was no musical genre that we wanted to be like. We just kind of developed, and wrote a couple songs, and then became aggressive.” To innovate, the band drew inspiration from “traditional metal influences, like Metallica,” which, Tuck explained, allowed them to rely less on the breakdown-oriented music of their peers. “There’s a lot more melodic stuff going on, both with the guitars and the vocals,” he said.
Metal exists on a spectrum, the poles of which range in degrees of a genre’s supposed authenticity. It can be safely said, for example, that nobody is murdering their bandmates because they weren’t nu-metal enough. Metalcore, by fusing the speed of hardcore punk with metal-sounding tones, fits somewhere along the middle. It is aggressive and perfectly moshable, but often relies on crunchily sentimental lyrics that, at their worst, can read like the headlines of your high school boyfriend’s LiveJournal circa 2004. The Encyclopaedia Metallum, an exhaustively thorough archive of all things metal, refuses even to list metalcore bands unless they have already released a metal album from somewhere further down the spectrum. In a recent Vice interview, Slayer’s Tom Araya, the closest thing metal has to an Old Master, derided metalcore for naming themselves with “little sentences” and laughed at the suggestion that they could steal Slayer’s thunder.
Araya might want to exercise more caution. Since their debut, metalcore bands have filled up the same billings Slayer used to occupy, playing to arenas sold out to fans who either don’t care to assign a value to a band’s metalness or are perfectly comfortable listening to both. For them, metalcore represents any number of typically Western pastimes, as ambiguous as baseball but with enough potential to be as exciting as ironically watching the Republican debate with a room full of liberals. That is not to say that metalcore can’t connect, but only that it doesn’t have to. Metalcore, unlike, say, black metal is not a lifestyle or political force. What it strives to be, above all else, is a lot of fun.
With Venom, BFMV suggests that that might be changing. Tuck is taking the band into new territory with it’s his most serious record yet. He’s heard the detractors and said the band has been “sitting down, reflecting, and taking things into perspective, making the strong points stronger, eliminating the weak points of what we do.” Outside, on stage, one band’s drummer begins soundchecking, and a consistent pounding echoes all throughout the room we’re sitting in. Tuck told me that much of the criticism has been fair, and the new record is an opportunity to rise above it all. “Let’s show people what we can do,” he said. “Let’s not have a producer that’s going to produce. Let’s do it ourselves, and let’s make it the most honest and open Bullet record we’ve ever done.”
They’ve ratcheted up the particular aural quality of the music. The guitars are stronger, the drums hit harder. “They’re a lot more aggressive in the way the snare attacks, for example, like it is right now,” Tuck said. And when it came to the lyrical content, the band “wanted it to be a bit darker, a bit sinister, a bit more kind of ‘ugh!’ You know, stuff that’s not really nice to sing about.” Venom may turn out to be their darkest album yet, but to Tuck it means something more. If this is the most honest BFMV has ever been, perhaps that is because it represents the band’s second act. In twelve years, this the first time they’ve played without their original bassist Jason James, who departed the band in February. In the meantime, Tuck has also become a father. “We had a clear vision on what we wanted to do this time around,” Tuck said. “This is the first time that’s ever happened.” From having no plan at all, they’ve finally arrived on the other side.
It remains to be seen how all this change will sit with their fans. One gets the sense that their fans skew a little younger, at least if one assumes that the people behind the myriad of Bullet for My Valentine Tumblr accounts are probably still in high school. They hear in the band’s lyrics not just aggression but empathy, sharing stories about the way BFMV’s music spoke to them and helped them navigate the difficulties of growing up in adolescence. Some users share images of the band or animated GIFs of Tuck singing the band’s lyrics. One favorite is taken from the music video for a song called “Tears Don’t Fall”, from The Poison, the lyrics of which — “Your tears don’t fall / They crash around me” — are superimposed over an image of Tuck screaming the words in a heavy rainfall, the better, perhaps, to mask his own tears.
It is to these fans that he hopes to connect. “When I was getting bullied,” Tuck said, “and being frustrated growing up back in Wales, and having no opportunities, no one nurturing talent for playing guitar and wanting to be in a band, no one took it seriously.” And Venom represents the first opportunity to do that, even if fans have been reading hope in the lyrics for years. “I just felt like I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It’s just taken this long to say it.” Becoming a father, and at this stage in his career, he wants the band to mean something to his fans, new and old, even if they don’t agree with it. As long as it comes from an honest place, and if people can relate to it, he said, “I think it makes the music and the song fucking far more potent.”
Tuck is particularly interested in leveling with his fans, as the only way to speak to them person to person. He had looked up to Kurt Cobain at the same age his fans are looking up to him now, because he identified in himself many of the same struggles that tormented Cobain. “Even though they may think you’re this untouchable rock god, the same issues that affected them affected me and affected him,” Tuck said. “It’s the same shit. We’re still human beings and we still experience the same things growing up as kids. And to know that something positive can come from it is inspiring. It is for me, when I was growing up as a kid, to know that my hero went through the same shit I was going through: ‘Oh my god, he’s real!’”
One feels this sense of generational difference as metal itself evolves. In 2005, it made sense to consider Bullet a mainstream band with its catchy hooks, melodic choruses, and clean production values. But ten years later, tastes have changed enough that it’s no longer considered déclassé to listen to metal. Major labels, gigantic festivals, pop culture celebrities and tastemakers, and mass media have had to take note. These days, academics present theses on black metal, as far along the spectrum as metal goes, at world-class universities. Metallica headlines Lollapalooza in Chicago, paying second billing to none other Sir Paul McCartney. And streaming services have flattened the cultural distance between queuing up Beyoncé and queuing up Behemoth. So when Tuck describes Venom’s progression as sounding fresh or younger, it’s because BFMV is introducing sounds its more mainstream-oriented audience hasn’t heard before, but for which they are finally ready.
“We could’ve easily made a fuckin’ Master of Puppets-style record, and it would’ve been amazing, for everyone who loves that,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s really relevant. You know, we still have those influences there. We still have those riffs and moments. I think to kind of make it more relevant and make it appeal to every person, every metalhead, is what we try to do. Not to kind of sell out, but we’re just aware that we are very on thin ice in a way. We can stick to our guns, do what we do, and be stubborn and old-fashioned, but we may start to fuckin’ disappear.”
The generation gap seemed to be no more prominent than in a recent statement made by Kevin Lyman, who co-founded the Mayhem Festival, one of the largest metal festivals in the world and which Bullet played in 2009. He had been asked why they had found difficulty booking bigger acts. “What happened was metal chased girls away because what happened was metal aged,” Lyman told the Detroit Free Press. “Metal got gray, bald and fat. And metal was about danger. When you went to a metal show, it was dudes onstage; there was some danger in it.” The remark offended nearly everyone in metal, not just because it was inaccurate (just look at Unlocking the Truth), but because it was condescending to metal’s fans, who know better. “Shame on anyone to say that,” Tuck said. “It’s ageist, it’s fuckin’ everything, it’s sexist, it’s just a shit comment.” He explained that metal wasn’t about showing up and getting girls, but about loyalty to the music.
“It’s still the purest form of music that is out there,” Tuck said. “Compared to a lot of modern hip-hop and pop and all that shit, metal is real music with real musicians singing about real things, and doing it the right way, not because they fuckin’ look pretty or anything. It’s because they fuckin’ love doing what they do. And the fans are always there, the most loyal fuckin’ fanbase you’ll ever have.”
And these fans are all over the world. Tuck mentioned that, recently, a fan had flown in from India just to catch the Bullet play in Atlanta. He would love to have met these fans in India instead, and China is also on his radar. “We know that there’s a big metal fanbase out there,” he said, because whenever bands like Iron Maiden make the trip they’re always able to put on massive shows. With the flattening of culture across digital landscapes, the world itself has become smaller, and metal has had to find ways to translate across these experiences. Tuck is optimistic: “I think the same things that affect people emotionally in life happen regardless of where you are, who you are, or where you’re from. We’re obviously just different, people still feel love, or feel hate. People get upset, people get motivated, all those things are still there.”
That’s how a fan in India might respond to the music in the same way a fan from the US or the UK might despite vastly different lived experiences. The theme of Venom is anger, of overcoming the urge to strike back, of refusing to let words ruin you, of growing up and growing stronger. In that sense, Venom might just be Tuck’s attempt at redemption. “I take things on the chin,” he said. “As long as I’m happy and I’m still in love with what I do, and who I am, and our families on tour and my family back home, that’s what keeps you motivated, that’s what keeps me calm.”
A recent review in NME had offended Tuck so deeply that he could almost quote the opening paragraph back to me from memory. “[NME’s Twitter account] basically just had a tag up just slagging us off about the new album, like “failed miserably” or something like that. Like, ‘What the fuck?’ You click on it, and the opening gambit was something along the lines of, ‘So what do you do when you’re sliding down the festival bill, playing to half-size venues that you used to play?’” By the time he’d finished reading the piece, he was laughing. “We’re on one of the hottest tours of the summer, supporting Slipknot, and last festival we played in the UK was Download Festival [in 2013], top from headlining underneath Slipknot,” he said. “Our last headline tour in the UK was arenas, and it’s like, ‘Where the fuck are these people getting this information from?’”
Because so much of the newest record is about making peace with oneself, I asked how Tuck would overcome a slight like that article.
“It’s just something that’s always been there,” he said. “That’s why we just need to deal with it now, because it’s never going to end. Some people are just going to fucking love it, they’re going to think it’s the best thing since Master of Puppets. Other people are going to think it’s the worst thing ever and fucking hate it. But it just is what it is. The way we kind of judge what we’re doing as a success is by being asked to come tour with Slipknot, by being asked to fuckin’ headline this festival, or play a sold-out arena or something. Well, when that happens, it’s just like, meh, these guys are just talking shit. It just is what it is, which is a shame because it doesn’t have to be like that, you know? They can criticize, and they can have an opinion, but just do it in a way that is fuckin’ respectful.”
The PNC Bank Arts Center doesn’t allow moshing, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to a metal show that required ushers. It’s easy to make fun of people who consider themselves metalheads respectfully moving to their assigned seats, wearing t-shirts for mainstream bands one is supposed to have grown out of by adulthood. One gentleman repping the nu-metal act Mushroomhead had blacked out his eyes with makeup and drawn little streams of black tears down his cheeks, and one wonders why a fellow so dedicated to heavy metal hadn’t found the nerve to graduate to something harder. But when Bullet for My Valentine finally took the stage, they chewed it up. They seemed to answer the criticism they’ve received with a force of aggression that was heartfelt and unmistakably metal. Not every metalhead will be converted; there will always be those who prefer their music laced with antipathy. Bullet performed several cuts off of Venom, and then launched into “Tears Don’t Fall.” As I stood at the front of the stage, I heard voices rising up behind me, something that I’ve never experienced at metal shows before. The audience was singing back.