Heavy metal today
Over the past three decades, heavy metal music has occupied a significant portion in modern popular culture. It has been charted into people’s collective subconscious as a dissonance of music culture and has been connected with specific iconography and behavior. It is the music genre that society loves to hate. It has been targeted many times by conservative powers due to its evil, anti-Christian values it hails and been unfairly used as the perfect scapegoat for various acts of violence. On the other hand, there are cases of atrocities performed by metal group members, especially in the notorious Norwegian black metal scene that put its status in question.
I have been listening to heavy metal for many years now. In my view, listening heavy metal as a teenager works as an effective mechanism for creating a sense of dispute in an early age. This reaction to dominant society is extremely helpful for a later be development of critical thought.
Either love it or hate it, heavy metal is out there and there’s more to it than what’s been projected by the mainstream. It’s only four years since I opened myself into more extreme metal bands. During this time I infiltrated into a remarkable underground music scene, so developed I couldn’t even imagine before. I discovered a considerable richness in subgenres, with each one of them being distinguished by different aesthetic, musical style and lyrical themes. There is a saying that goes like nothing exists until it got noticed. This is the side of heavy metal that this paper is going to deal with.
Cultness of heavy metal
Over the past few years there have been many debates about what makes a specific cultural item, either it’s a film, a comic book, or a television show, cult. Arguably, one of the fundamental issues about researching cult media is the very definition of the term. Below I cite the most complete one that I found, taken from the useful companion The Cult Film Reader:
A cult film is a film with an active and lively communal following. Highly committed and rebellious in its appreciation, its audience regularly finds itself at odds with the prevailing cultural mores, displaying a preference for strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics. Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling, often using intertextual references, gore, leaving loose ends or creating a sense of nostalgia […]
Of course, when talking about cult media, the majority of the discussion takes place around film and television. But if one would attempt to apply the various interpretations and definition of cult into a music genre, I don’t think it would fit anywhere better than in heavy metal.
Indeed, heavy metal has a long tradition of cultness. It always was mainstream music’s bastard son. Applying the above definition to metal, it’s not difficult to make connections. Firstly, fandom was the most important factor of its existence, from the very beginning. Just like in cult film, metal’s fan base is ridiculously devoted, with a powerful sense of identity. Metalheads -as the fans call themselves- group together in “taste cultures”, where they share their common interest into music. Since metal is not widely projected by the media, they have to discover the music themselves, gaining in this way (sub)cultural capital. They consciously alienate themselves from mainstream society and its dominant taste. Within their subculture there is a code of behavior, which deals with authenticity. They must never “sell out” to mainstream impulses. They have to be defenders of the faith. There are also some strong representation of gender and race, as metalheads are mostly young, male and white.
Furthermore, heavy metal is highly revolutionary. Its unconventional aesthetic, its bombastic sound, its incoherent song structure, its occult themes and its general abnormality oppose the commonly accepted musical taste of the society. It was more than mere chance that it emerged in the early 70s, probably modern History’s most radical period. Despite its naivety, it first came out as a political cry over a liberal society which was turning into an authoritarian society, a reaction to all the new age norms that would appear one after the other. Gradually, it got harder, faster and in many cases, darker and progressed into an ever evolving musical movement.
It would be wrong to consider the whole heavy metal scene as cult. Through its course, there have been many genres that were praised by wider audiences and artists who flirted with the fame and popularity of the mainstream pop stars. It got noticed and commercialized by MTV and various other music media, its songs transformed into soften, radio-friendly tunes. The examples vary, from many hard rock bands of the 70s and the glam metal scene (also known as pop metal) of the 80s, to the nu-metal/alternative metal scenes of the 90s and the emo frenzy in the 00s. However, there are genres that stay true to their underground roots and deserve every right to be called cult. On the following lines I will introduce the most important ones, analyze their separate styles and reflect upon their cult concepts.
The first metal genre that should be considered as cult is undoubtedly thrash metal. Developed largely in California’s Bay Area by bands such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, it is also the first extreme metal genre. Its characteristics are fast music tempo, with low-registered guitars and double bass drumming, complex songwriting and harsh, aggressive vocals. Its lyrical themes deal largely with the decay of modern society and people’s inner struggles.
When it came out in the early 1980s, it was like nothing music community ever heard before. With the fastness as its trademark, thrash metal was a manic rain of guitar riffs. It had a huge impact on heavy metal musicians of the time, became the progenitor of another two extreme metal genres (death metal and black metal) and instantly gained a cult following.
Thrash metal purists were extraordinary devoted to their music. They heavily mocked the glam scene that was raging in the east coast of the United States and got involved into fights with the west coast hardcore punk scene fans. Metalheads’ behavior in live shows (the headbanging, the mosh pits, etc.), was basically set by them. But unfortunately, their subject of worship would not last for long. The uprising popularity of grunge and alternative metal in the early 1990s, lead thrash metal to decline. It became obsolete, outdated and too complicated, in front of the simplicity and casualty of the new music trends. Even the very bands that defined it diverged from its initial style. Thrash metal never quite made it out of the 80s.
More recently, however, it seems that there is a tendency of reevaluation towards it. Old artists return to their initial sound and there is a whole new generation which draws influences from it and calls on mind those angry days back in the 80s.
Indicative cult bands: Municipal Waste, Testament, Death Angel
If there is a metal genre that could be perceived as a real cult, with the literal meaning of the word, it is none other than black metal. Already counting over 20 years of existence, with a continuous presence almost strictly on the underground, black metal has evolved into one of the most sinister forms of art in modern history.
It was originated in Europe in the mid 80s by influential bands like Celtic Frost, Bathory and Venom (from who’s album second album Black Metal the genre took its name), and during 20th century’s last decade, it hugely propagated in Norway, where it burgeoned by Emperor, Burzum, Immortal, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Marduk and got professed by many devoted followers, as black metal fans are the most faithful than any other metal subgenre.
Its sound is unmistakable: fast-paced distorted guitar fusions, blast beat double-bass drumming, shrieking frightful vocals and a pretentious low-budget production. It approaches controversial thematology, often dealing with Satanism, nihilism and misanthropy. Some black metal artists transformed these themes into philosophical movements -also connected with National Socialism- and went through a series of extremes acts of hate and intolerance, occurrences that reached their climax in the mid 90s with the murders and the church burning events. Nevertheless there are many black metal bands with different concerns, such as folklore, mythology, nature and ecological themes.
Another feature of black metal music is the theatricality of its live shows. The artists appear on stage fully armored with spikes, bullets and black leather, wearing white make-up on their faces, which is reasonably known as corpse paint, since it is used in order to reminiscent the dead and performing all kinds of unholy ceremonies.
Indicative cult bands: Carpathian Forest, Leviathan, Wolves in the Throne Room
Loud, fast-paced and mind-blowing, death metal is another milestone genre in extreme music. Down-tuned swift guitarwork, complex double bass drumming and incoherent song structure, with many tempo changes, are among its features. However, what makes it immediately recognizable and separates it from any other heavy metal genre is its roaring vocal style:
Because of the various substrata, the telltale sign of death metal is the vocals. The vocals are usually guttural and low-pitched. When you are hearing a Death metal vocalist, you should be under the impression that you are hearing a demon.
Bill Zebub, The Grimoir
Founded in the heart of the 80s mostly by American bands such as Death, Morbid Angel and Possessed, death metal could be considered as the musical relative of slasher films and horror b-movies. The gory album artwork and violent lyrical content has frequently provoked criticism and acts of censorship.
The scene acquired a huge cult following back in the 80s. Existent record labels had an awkward position towards it, as they didn’t know how to handle its extremity. The scene grew due to the artists’ personal efforts, trading tapes of their material to each other and the fans’ insistence of supporting them.
Since then death metal took somewhat different directions, and there are many who claim that it is dead. Today, however, there is an ever growing sense of nostalgia, expressed by lots of new bands paying tribute to it and many old bands reuniting.
Indicative cult bands: Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Septic Flesh
It is common that British gods Black Sabbath are the first heavy metal band to come around. It is the band that demarcated its sound and marked its iconography. What is less known is that Sabbath are also responsible for the birth of another metal genre, germinated straight from the cultness of its forefathers: doom metal.
It was pioneered in the 80s by American bands Pentagram, Saint Vitus and Trouble, as well as UK bands Witchfinder General and Pagan Altar. Unlike the previous genres, doom metal could be hardly called as technical. But it is in its simplicity where its power lies. Dark down-tempo rhythms, slow-paced thundering guitar riffs, a profound largeness and heaviness in the sound, doom metal is all about creating an atmosphere of emptiness and despair. Lyrically, it’s dealing with depression, grief and suffering, or with the occult. The songs are usually sung with clean or even operatic vocals.
Doom metal inspired many subgenres, such as death/doom, a combination of death metal’s growling vocal style with thick doom riffage, drone doom, where drone harmonies made by highly distorted electric guitars are played repeatedly under the complete absence of drums and vocals and funeral doom, which leads the genre into further musical extremes, with its torturing slow-paced tempos and its desperate soundscapes.
Indicative cult bands: Coffins, Skepticism, Sunn O)))
Reminiscent to doom metal, but with a more up-tempo and groovy sound, stoner metal emerged in the beginning of the 90s, almost exclusively by American bands. Palm Desert Scene’s Kyuss are the honorary forefathers, while acts like Sleep, Fu Manchu and Monster Magnet further developed its sound. Strongly connected with the use of psychedelic drugs and marijuana (“stoner” is the user of cannabis) and borrowing elements from blues-rock and psychedelic rock, stoner is a retro tribute to the trippy 70s.
Most stoner band use much more light motifs, than in previous genre. The issues sung about largely deal with women, alcohol and drug use, or sometimes space themes, mythology, even cult movies. The vocal style is mostly clean, reminiscent to hard rock and rock & roll.
Indicative cult bands: Electric Wizard, Sleep, Bongzilla
Sludge metal is yet another extreme metal genre, voluminous in its aggressive and pessimistic nature. It was invented by Washington influential rockers Melvins, who mixed Black Sabbath’s doom, with Black Flag’s hardcore punk and thus, created a loud and ugly offspring. Nonetheless, sludge metal rightfully belongs to the burning South. Faithfull to its underground roots, bands like Eyehategod, Crowbar, Acid Bath and Iron Monkey, pioneered the genre, playing ultra heavy music, with crushing low-tuned riffage, powerful hardcore-influenced drumming and shouting vocals.
Back in those days, everything in the underground was fast, fast, fast. It was the rule of the day. But when the Melvins came out with their first record, Gluey Porch Treatments, it really broke the mold, especially in New Orleans. People began to appreciate playing slower. With that, all the old Black Sabbath came back around and then you start digging and you come to your Saint Vitus, your Witchfinder General, your Pentagram, etc.
Phil Aselmo, Pantera/ Down
The lyrical themes are similar to hardcore punk, especially the crust scene. In their majority, they comment upon modern society, expressing hostility against US politics.
Indicative cult bands: Every single sludge band.
Also known as atmospheric sludge, or “instrumetal”, due to its lengthy instrumental parts, post-metal uses heavy elements taken from sludge metal and mixes them with the sound of bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai, representatives of post-rock music scene. Founders of the genre are the members of the great underground band Neurosis, a highly influential band that portrays complicated philosophical matters about man’s nature.
Post-metal’s powerful musical fusion features heavy outbreaks of massive oceanic guitar riffs, melodic bass lines, bulky drumming, interfused with beautiful moments of ambience. The vocals are either screaming or completely absent. The songs are unconventional in both their structure and duration, following the likes of post-rock, where a song theme is repeated until it reached its crescendo. Its sophisticated lyrical approaches, with topics such as cosmic and existential theories, metaphysics, literature and social commentary, along with its thoroughly crafted album artworks, make post-metal a full-fledged aesthetic musical suggestion.
Indicative cult bands: Neurosis, Amenra, Cult of Luna
All of these scenes are more or less kept alive or got reborn, thanks to the fans. Without their persistence of supporting the bands they love, by acquiring their records and merchandise, or by following them to their live shows, those bands would be long dead. It is true that throughout the years things changed quite a bit. The old days it was through the word of mouth, the talk of the town, or maybe some underground fanzines that the bands reached their audiences. Nowadays it’s the internet, with hundreds of blogs that disperse the world of extreme music. And perhaps it has lost some of its previous underground prestige, but it still is a matter of cultural capital, it still remains hidden from the ears of the many.
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