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Backlash of The Heavy Metal Puritans: Why Metal Needs To Expand Its Boundaries

To call my most recent column, The 15 Metal Bands, Young and Old, You Should Be Listening To In 2015 , polarizing, would be a disservice to some of the vitriolic commentary on the piece, proclaiming that I had tragically missed the mark. I don’t think I fully understood the gravity of the reality that I was writing for VH1 now; that the reach and impact of my words carried vastly more weight than before. The main gripe was that the list was not truly “metal” enough. This, I cannot argue. The “metal” tag was added to the title after I turned in the piece. I made a list of upcoming and established heavy bands (as I was assigned) that moved me, and that I believed needed to be heard and/or would have a significant role in making big waves in 2015. In my view, all of this lives under the umbrella of heavy music, or as Jamey Jasta would say, ”Loud amps in the face”, and not sticking to some arbitrary guidelines of what meets the benchmark for being “metal”.

Even if I had started the column with the intention of making a list that was distinctly metal, I’m not totally sure what I would have come up with. A high degree of metal-ness does not exactly equate to a high level of creative innovation. Currently, I think the inverse might be actually true.

This got me to thinking about the place we’re at with the close-minded and obtuse mindset of the heavy metal elitist. As I’ve matured, my place has been to play counterpoint to convention wisdom in the metal world, such as my article on defending mainstream metal or my recurring segment, Rejecting the Sickness on the Metalsucks Podcast, where I argue with hosts and true metal nerds, Chuck and Godless, about the validity of bands hated on by the fanboy elite.

In reaction to my Top 15 list, commenter, Seth, perhaps explained this mindset to a T, “Metal---and by metal, I mean death, black, doom, thrash, 'traditional' hm etc., NOT 'post metal' or 'djent' or 'mathnoisecore'—should not appeal to non-metal people.”

I genuinely appreciate Seth’s candor and ability to draw strict guidelines on what his version of metal is, but I am not going to play ball. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. There are plenty of metal websites and blogs that cater to the tastes of the underground palette. Metalinjection.net, Metalsucks.net, Decibelmagazine.com. I could have put Behemoth on the list instead of Bring My The Horizon because they have credibility and it would have kept the hounds at bay. I could have put Black Crown Initiate on the list because, well, “they were on the other critic’s list.” I guess there is something there that I should glom on to. Behemoth and Black Crown Initiate are great, but I am just using them as examples of bands that might meet the metal scene’s “trueness” qualifications.

If I could construct a chart to measure which attributes qualify certain bands as “metal” enough or “true” enough, there would be certain attributes that carry much more weight than others.

1. Oldness

Judas Priest “Heading Out To The Highway” (Live in 2013)

Unabashed truth scribe Sergeant D has pointed this out before myself, but to reiterate, metalheads love old bands. More accurately, they worship any band that props up the nostalgia of a time when the metal was pure and real, i.e. the '80s. Look at any denim vest littered with band patches. You’d be hard pressed to find a band that’s newer than 15 years old. Bands like Lamb of God or Goatwhore could make the grade, but are babies on this scale. You might see a Municipal Waste patch mainly because they sound like they came out 30 years ago. Being new and sounding old is considered a pro move. Being new and sounding new means you are stepping outside of the boundaries established by metal’s past, and subsequently un-metal. The metal scene is conservative and wants things to stay as they have been. I wonder if Norman Rockwell ever painted head bangers.

2. Musician-ness

Symphony X "Set The World On Fire"

The more your music is geared to please other musicians, the more you will be rewarded by metal nerds. It’s an infinite circle jerk. Simplifying your music in any way means you are “playing to the lowest common denominator”. Never mind that bands like Black Sabbath and Motorhead have simplistic deliveries, they fall under the “Old” category (see number 1). Please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The musician-pleasing crowd won’t be happy until metal ends up like jazz where the only fans left are other musicians relegated to intimate lounges, halls of academia, and only truly appreciated at novel European festivals. And speaking of Europe…

3. European-ness (white-ness)

Amon Amarth "Deceiver of the Gods"

I don’t mean that having white people in your band makes you more legitimate (although I’m sure it won’t hurt). What I’m saying is that sounding or being European, and even better, Scandinavian, gives your band vastly more metal cred and heavy metal authenticity. This is highlighted by the ascension of tours like Paganfest, which is so overtly European in it’s aesthetic, that feels closer to music that should be featuring in Lord of Rings or Braveheart. This is the reason metalheads conversely hate nu-metal so much. Rapping, hip-hop grooves, DJs, baggy clothes; this is as anti-medieval Europe as it gets. Nu-metal just feels a bit too black, urban. I’m not calling metalheads racist. They aren’t. They just tend to be on the opposite side of the cultural coin, and the meshing of the two worlds just feels icky and wrong. Take a band like Amon Amarth, whose music and profile conjures imagery and a feeling that is so specifically European, their authenticity as being purely metallic is undeniable.

4. Extremity

Hate Eternal "Lake Ablaze"

The quickest way to metal credibility is to live in the world of the extreme. Even though clean vocals are accepted in certain bands like Judas Priest (Old) or Opeth (European), you’d be best served by ditching the clean vocals altogether for maximum cred. Now, I’m not talking about some hardcore style barking. We want death metal growling, whether it be old school guttural a la “Corpsegrinder” Fisher or even slithery rasps like Jeff Walker from Carcass. On the instrumental side of things, speed is god. Groove is the devil. Bands like Hate Eternal or Krisiun may not be as popular as groovier bands like Decapitated or Obituary, but their credibility will never questioned, because they live and die by the blast. Look into the rise and fall of Cryptopsy’s cred as they teetered on losing their membership in the death metal fraternity by straying off the reservation of the extreme on The Unspoken King album.

5. Obscurity

Midnight Live At Maryland Deathfest XI

There is nothing more a metal elitist loves to do on a message board or comments section than to boast about the brilliance of obscure and unheralded bands. To be fair, elitists in all fields do this, so it’s not exclusive to the metal world. But metal does a particularly good job at tearing down any band that is well known, as if their popularity itself is a sign that the band is somehow tainted. “Hmmm…Volbeat is selling quite a lot of albums and concert tickets. Something must be afoot.” Suspicion of metal’s top earners lacking metal authenticity is commonplace, unless of course they are a legacy (Old) band like Iron Maiden.

6. Ugliness

Accept "Balls to the Wall"

I think this is the main reason metalheads are leery of a band like Bring Me The Horizon, and including them in the list caused such a firestorm. That is one pretty son of a bitch fronting that band, and good-looking people are inherently untrustworthy. Metallers prefer their band members to embody a look resembling a coal miner who moonlights as a Game of Thrones extra. Avenged Sevenfold would be much more appealing to the average metal nerd if you threw in a token beer gut, a few barfight battle scars, and a couple Captain Caveman beardos. Of course, there are plenty of good-looking people in “true” bands, but having a face like a foot will quickly get you over the top on the path to credibility. No disrespect to Udo.

If any of these categories hit home with you, said in my best Jeff Foxworthy impressed drawl, “You might be a metal nerd.”

What it ultimately breaks down to is the idea of purism and the mentality of a purist. I am a bi-racial man who was in a band, God Forbid, whose career was defined by blending styles and paid the price for it. I have lived my life in the grey area. Your purity can go fuck itself. In my mind, the movement that strives for purity in metal conjures a connection to disastrous ideologies like Aryanism or troublesome social engineering tactics like eugenics. Our music scene is not quite in the same realm as the aforementioned social and political movements, but the mentality that distills homogenization is linked.

The bitter truth is that there is no way to ever satisfy the beast. It will never be good enough for the metal purist. This is evidenced by the recent desecration of Dimebag Darrell’s grave. Even the mighty Pantera doesn’t meet the standard of metallic virtue. I guess Pantera isn’t European enough. They have a little too much honkey-tonk swing, and play to the cheap seats and cater to the everyman a little too well. They influenced too many nu-metal bands. Or Maybe Dime just smiled too much and stood for inclusion instead of exclusion, and some petty, meddling twat couldn’t let that slide.

[Photo: Getty Images]