Gentrified: Has Heavy Metal Ventured From It’s Working Class Roots?

Music within our metal world is divided like blue states and red states.

Heavy metal’s roots were originally planted in industrial post-World War II England. You hear the tales from the members of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Motorhead in various biographies and documentaries about the oppressive smoke stacks and smothered existence of factory life in towns like Birmingham, UK. Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi famously lost the tips of his fingers in an industrial work accident. This stark environment fed the music’s creation, and therefore connected with the downtrodden young working class of the Western world. It was this music that spoke to the disaffected everyman. It said that your bubbling frustration with the establishment was valid. It’s the world that was f-cked up: the wars, the government, the school system, the church. You’ve been lied to your whole life and you are f-cking pissed off. The truth is in heavy metal.

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If you haven’t seen it, you should do yourself a favor and watch the mini- movie, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which is essentially a collection of interviews of fans tailgating at a Judas Priest concert in 1986. The general depiction shows a rather unsophisticated and inebriated collection of misfit characters, representative of a certain slice of working class America of the time. In many ways, we look at this film today like we might look at this documentary on Juggalos, released only a few years ago; it’s analogous to picking up a rock to see the filthy insect riddled reality hidden underneath. Many of us modern fans are disconnected from this reality of the common metal fan; they are the “others”, the mouth-breathers, the breeders outpacing the intellects in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

History’s best and biggest metal bands always had a populist strain running right through their fiber. Despite not being British or American, AC/DC is the best example of setting the scales for songs about fighting and f-cking, riff-centric arrangements with pace and space, audible and powerful in ANY venue. Their songs were meant to be blasted and yelled along to in pubs and beer halls: blue collars with dirt under unkempt fingernails and even a hint of black lung.

It’s been a long time since the late '70s and early '80s when metal’s fire was lit. The world has changed so much since then. Unadulterated blind rage has segued into nihilism and poignant apathy. The heavy music community has splintered into about 1,000 different factions.

We have Norwegian black metal, which is perhaps mostly identified by is it’s aristocratic separateness. The politically tinged philosophy and lifestyle is purposefully meant to be for the strongest men of will tilted against the weakness of common religiosity. In many ways, I admire the resolve and discipline of men like Nergal of Behemoth (not Norwegian) and Gaahl of Gorgoroth and God Seed. There is a fascinating documentary about Gaahl that examines his worldview, and there is nothing common about this man or the way he thinks.

There is also the rise of brainy and studied progressive metal. Venturing to a Dream Theater show will furnish you with the luxury of experiencing several Vidal Sassoon scented ponytails and wrinkle free collared shirts tucked into Lee jeans. Let’s face it though; this crowd is smart...well, maybe just educated. But, they know things: music theory, how to fence, and maybe a little Elvish. Less than 20% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, so education in and of itself puts you in an elite subset. They might be better than us, but without a fencing sword or light sabre nearby, you can probably kick their ass (Pro-Tip: go for the ponytail). On a serious note, much like their nerdy counterparts in Silicon Valley, this tech-savvy bunch is probably halfway to their Dr. Evil style plan to run the world, so I should probably stop cracking jokes.

Last and definitely least is the emergence of hipster metal. The problem with identifying Hipster-ism is that many Hipsters don’t know they are really Hipsters. Lack of self-awareness is a common theme among subcultures: dumb people don’t know they’re dumb, bros don’t know they’re bros. The predominant identifier has to be pretentiousness, and a perceived sophistication. It’s comparable to viewing a plain white painting at an art museum and trying to “get it”. If Sunn O))) is going to feedback for 10 minutes straight, you have to be somewhat sophisticated (or pretend to be) to understand the abstractness of their expression.

A band like Deafheaven is a band we can all agree can be categorized as hipster metal. I find their major key, shoe gaze-y, pseudo black metal and innocuous image unappealing, but my ability to detect this phenomenon is somewhat fleeting. There is an interesting, in-depth, albeit longwinded article on the subject here, which helped me get a better feel for detection.

I certainly don’t “get it”. My tastes are fairly simple. A good song is a good song regardless of genre, although I know how subjective that assessment can be. I want my metal to be intelligent and well played, but being interesting and having something that grabs me, a hook, a melody, a lyric, is the most important thing. I lie somewhere in the middle with regard to either being too elitist and high-minded or playing to the lowest common denominator. I am turned off when it goes too far in either direction.

I think the reason a band like Five Finger Death Punch has enjoyed such overwhelming success is that they weren’t afraid to create music for the regular Joe: the gas station attendants, the minimum wage service workers, the hard hats on a construction site. Although, I am slightly uneasy with some of the jingoistic rhetoric, the populist, flyover state appeal showed that there was a demand for a sound that no one was meeting. In the late '00s, they brought back some of the nu-metal hallmarks that were not en vogue, and combined them with NWOAHM bullet points like the scream-sing, verse-chorus Killswitch Engage formula and bombastic guitar solos re-popularized by bands like Shadows Fall and Trivium. 5FDP might seem lowbrow to those on the opposite side of the fence, but I appreciate the confidence it takes to not feel the need to please stuffy critics and other musicians with noses pointed permanently in the air. If you think what they did is easy, than look at the hundreds of bands trying to follow in their footsteps and failing.

There are a handful of bands that seem to appeal to the intelligentsia and common folk like Lamb of God, Mastodon, and Clutch, but this is certainly the exception, not the rule. In my mind, it’s unfortunate that the politics of our music, even within our little metal world, is divided like blue states and red states. As a human race, there are already so many things that divide us: wealth and poverty, education and ignorance, black and white, the powerful and powerless. Perhaps, I am naïve in hoping that lines in the sand can be blurred. When bands like AC/DC and Van Halen hang it up, will there be any meeting points in the middle that we can all agree on? I worry about this day when the tent pole collapses, when metal lays on the fringes, disparate and dying on the vine.