In the few hundred interviews I’ve conducted over the last two years with SfB, I’ve dedicated at least part of nearly all of those conversations to the topic of how much has changed for metal fans and bands over the last ten years. The question originates from a personal fascination with the culture shift and not from some manifestation of disillusionment over, god forbid, a form of music I love becoming popular. What is popularity? Does it even matter? Why do we dedicate so much time talking about it? I say “we” because I’ve been just as guilty of propping up idealisms of critical perspective over simply talking about the music.
Trying to understand why audiences in 2014 seem more receptive to heavy and extreme music than those of even a decade ago is important, but it’s not for reasons of perceived well-poisoning by new fans or an oversaturation of every kind of –core band you can imagine. Understanding why the dynamic of metal’s audience has changed, in some cases drastically, over the last ten years is important because it speaks to the significance of the music itself. Heavy metal has always been both sonically and emotionally powerful, and it will always remain so regardless of whatever sociological shifts may or may not occur.
It’s highly doubtful that there exists any one reason for the increase in metalhead numbers. What’s also a sure thing is that bands are struggling to survive as much now if not more so than ten years ago. Two bands with recent releases who’ve experienced this kind of shift both in their music and in their respective fanbases are Opeth and Mastodon. Despite the small but no less incredibly cacophonous metal elite eagerly dismissing the whole of these bands’ discography over displeasure with their most recent output, it’s completely delusional to overlook or disregard the influence and importance that both bands have had on heavy music in the 21st century so far.
No, this does not mean that these bands are the greatest. It doesn’t even indicate that they were the “first” (whatever that means) to harness their particular sound. What it does mean is that they narrowed the gap between the radio ready nü-metal of the early 00s and the burgeoning underground scene that had been around the entire time. This isn’t to say that Opeth and Mastodon were borrowing or even incorporating those sounds to close that gap, but rather that they were borrowing from a wealth of influences – most of which were likely less metal and more straightforward classic rock.
Opeth’s finest hour came in the form of 2001’s Blackwater Park – an absolute masterpiece and what will likely show itself to be one of this century’s most important heavy metal releases. Three years later, Mastodon followed up the outstanding Remission with the monolithic Leviathan, a ten-track battering ram of a record with sounds steeped in enough prog and sludge familiarity to lure in listeners for the ultimate reward that was, again god forbid, pretty damn catchy metal songs. For whatever reason, some had difficulty wrapping their heads around such an idea, as if metal had suddenly become good and smart people were suddenly taking notice.
Even the trve metal fan’s favorite whipping-boy known as Pitchfork reviewed Leviathan, resulting in all manner of handwringing declarations that metal had finally been tainted beyond repair. But here we are ten years nearly to the day (the album was released on August 31st) from Leviathan’s release, and yet heavy metal somehow continues to thrive and reach new audiences in every part of the world, regardless of gender, culture, race, belief system, or even age. The fact that bands like Mastodon and Opeth made the early impact they did just before the full onslaught of social media as well as the final death groan of the major label age is a testament to the staying power of this genre, irrespective of any trends that have come and gone and will inevitably do so again.
Since that time, both Mastodon and Opeth have distanced themselves from the sound that garnered them the initial overwhelming attention and acclaim from fans and critics. It’s not to say both bands didn’t have their fair share of fans well before these releases. Both had their respective fanbases from the very beginning, but both also saw the pivotal point of their commercial and critical success come in the wake of these two albums specifically. Neither band sounds much at all like they used to, and that’s completely fine. We’ve still again somehow managed to have an outstanding year for metal. In fact, both of those bands’ releases this year are quite good in their own right if perhaps a little less inspired in the case of Mastodon.
The point is that things change in spite of whatever praise or criticism we might direct at whatever band is currently on the radar of what seems like every damn outlet. Concern over how much or how little a band is covered might actually be one of the most unintentionally hilarious and also pathetic things in metal fandom. Heavy metal is not a sandbox, and no one is encroaching on anyone’s corner where they’ve been sitting during recess for the last twenty or thirty years. No one owns heavy metal and despite what may seem like an endless stream of music sites serving as band or label mouthpieces, metal is gonna be A-OK.
Where heavy music will be ten years from now is anyone’s guess, and it’s probably an enormous waste of time busying ourselves trying to hypothesize the possibilities. Mastodon may very well end up releasing a straight yokel bluegrass LP and Opeth may have changed its name to Åkerfeldt and the Magma Astronauts. Either way, who cares? What’s for certain is that it’s coming. The change, that is. Things will happen. Bands will break up and reunite. Metal will suddenly not be a critical darling, and then it will be again. None of this will have nor has it ever had any effect whatsoever on the inimitable power of this music. The riffs will never die, but you will. Might as well bang your head and lose yourself in the sound while you still have time.
6 THINGS TO HEAR
Accept – Blind Rage
After the (final) departure of founding member and vocalist Udo Dirkschneider in 2005, Accept’s story looked like it would go the way of the proverbial long-running, little-producing band, sputtering to a halt of occasional reunion rumors and obligatory compilation releases. Then came 2010’s Blood of the Nations, a record that even with its minor missteps sounded like a band who were completely content to stick to their riff-centric straight heavy metal formula. Often used as critical ammunition, the word “formula” is a welcome sign of dedication and focus on one aspect of musicianship in a metal world that often rewards the floundering jack-of-all-trades approach to every kind of experimentation a band can manage to post-it to their sound.
Now three albums into their umpteenth reformation as a band, Accept’s Blind Rage is a searing reminder that age and longevity do not damn a band to repetitive irrelevance. Songs like “Fall of the Empire” and “The Curse” burn with enough gasoline-soaked fury to level whatever flavor-of-the-week crustcore happens to be bubbling up from the metal maw at the moment. Much like their metal pioneering contemporaries, Judas Priest, whose Redeemer of Souls landed on last month’s Retrospective Beast, Accept are still kicking ass and taking names and thankfully don’t look to stop any time soon.
Bastard Sapling – Instinct is Forever
Black metal sans adjectival nuance is the new holy grail of extreme metal. It is completely possible to create an album that’s memorable, thought-provoking, and just plain fucking good without resorting to clever gimmickry. Blend does not mean brilliant, nor does sticking to the basics damn a band to blandness. Bastard Sapling’s Instinct is Forever is an unhinged, unfiltered black metal album, devoid of shtick and absolutely absent the kind of bullshit that tends to drag this genre into all manner of mediocrity.
It’s precisely every good thing about the black metal genre wrapped up into one LP that doesn’t bother trying to pretend that it’s pretty in the hopes that you’ll feel comforted. This is an enraged call to the unsettling nature of primality at its most unforgivingly bleak and relentlessly focused.
Midnight – No Mercy for Mayhem
Active for over a decade, Midnight’s been churning out their razor sharp black thrash with the kind of dedication and tenacity that’s more than welcomed, especially when it’s a release like 2008’s Farewell to Hell EP or the lion’s share of their other multitude of splits, compilations, and full-lengths. The Cleveland trio have outdone themselves with No Mercy for Mayhem, though – a point that SfB contributor John Serba smartly pointed out in his review last month.
It’s yet another release from the ever reliable Hells Headbangers label, whose roster of bands like Nunslaughter, Shitfucker, and the outstanding High Spirits are creating some of heavy metal’s most straightforward and genuinely interesting music today.
Panopticon – Roads to the North
The enigmatic Austin Lunn has done a fine job establishing the mystique that surrounds his (and most, frankly) one-man black metal project, Panopticon. But mystique is advertising and not product and what one band manages to follow through on concerning their image or aesthetic, there are at least a dozen who fail miserably, leaving the listener with a bill of goods. Lunn has time and again proven himself to be the former, offering up a black metal that grounds itself as much to its obvious Scandinavian roots as it does in the sounds and atmosphere of Lunn’s native Kentucky.
SfB senior contributor Craig Hayes laid out the details of why Lunn succeeded yet again in his review of Roads to the North. Lunn pointed out in this interview with Invisible Oranges that the seclusion he seeks is based in a very non-mysterious simplicity, a belief in the sanctity that is our relationship with nature. It’s that very relationship which informs Lunn to majestic and commanding success on Roads to the North, and one that will undoubtedly resurface again from the backwoods of Kentucky as long as he’s there.
Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
There’s nothing like wide acclaim for a metal band to render the whole of metal fandom in a tither comparable to a wide-angle shot of a town hall meeting from The Simpsons, complete with Mrs. Reverend Lovejoy sobbing something along the lines of “Won’t someone think about the children?!” Pallbearer’s sophomore release, Foundations of Burden, is a masterful achievement for the band for a number of reasons, none of which include a magic percentage of criticism or even praise. Whether it’s the fuller scope of melodic narrative or the tighter production or even the fact that, as evolutionary science would indicate, the band’s sound and compositional dynamic has progressed even from what had proven itself to be a substantial force to be reckoned with at their very beginnings with Sorrow & Extinction.
Foundations of Burden doesn’t introduce anything new into the music spectrum as it’s arguable that nothing has for a long damn time, and as inconceivable as it may seem, that’s completely fine. The record, like many others that have come before and after it, is a beautiful and moving reimagining of the influences and experiences that led to its creation. It’s an introspection that works to incredibly powerful ends with Foundations of Burden and one that will hopefully see the band resist the temptation to plateau or remain content in any one creative place for long.
Take Over And Destroy – Vacant Face
The term rock n’ roll has, for whatever reason, become a bit of a bad word in the heavy music realm with most equating the word with the infinite number of shitham bands that build entire careers out of recycled Scorpions riffs and a parody-ready aesthetic of pseudo-masculinity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes (read: every time) rock n’ roll is pretty much whatever the fuck it wants to be. Take Arizona’s charred out rock n’ rollers Take Over and Destroy for example. Their 2013 debut Endless Night was the kind of record that generally breeds words like “promising” and “hopeful” from fans and critics alike, and the album certainly plays like the culmination but not quite full realization of a band’s musical focus.
After only a year, Take Over and Destroy have found that focus with Vacant Face, a forty-five minute excursion into a very singular kind of rock n’ roll that borrows as much from Emperor as it does from Grand Funk Railroad. While tossing ingredient together and seeing if it sticks often leads to at least critical adoration, Take Over and Destroy manage the communion of the two so seamlessly that the music almost seems familiar in its own right. With the focus more on the result than on the process, Take Over and Destroy provide more than an ample amount of evidence that their creative concern isn’t a blending gimmick. Take Over and Destroy’s business is riffs and business is good.
SfB’s usual 666 list format for The Retrospective Beast feature will return in September. Thanks as always for reading.