13 bands everyone loves who never achieved superstardom
Sometimes it’s better to have a flush reputation as a band than an overflowing bank account. Being successful as a band is always appreciated, but having your peers and fans view you as a reliable force for great art is invaluable, and losing your way in the name of financial gain can cost you the respect of your audience. Cynics will happily argue that you can’t eat cred, and that there’s no point in making music that won’t turn you into a rock star. But the truth is that at least a third of the bands we consider legends today were financial failures when they first emerged, and only picked up speed by sticking to their guns. To put it another way: the Misfits weren’t playing arenas in the early ’80s, but there’s a reason they’re doing so now.
This results in a specific class of artists: bands who everyone loves, but who just never blew up. These are musicians who have seen acclaim around the world, and whose names are always on the lips of their peers, but who may never headline a massive sports arena. Whether it’s because they refused to dull their edge, or whether they sound better on a smaller scale, these artists remain some of our favourites even though they’re not chart-topping successes.
Here are 13 bands who everyone loves, but who probably won’t ever headline Download…
To hear the musicians of the 2000s metalcore scene talk about Unearth, you’d think the Boston band would be headlining Download. “I’ve always loved that band,” said Killswitch Engage vocalist Jesse Leach in an episode of our podcast Inside Track. “I love their style, their tenacity, their speed… they’re just a great metal band.” But those attributes are perhaps what’s kept the band from becoming a household name – while Unearth’s refusal to compromise has earned them a sterling reputation, it also scares off mainstream fans who’re into the genre for those big, sing-along choruses. A band we’re happy to see anywhere, even if it is a club over an arena.
Read this: How metalcore killed nu-metal
Of the many bands who merged emo, hardcore, and pop-punk in the early 2000s, Irvine, California’s Thrice were seen as one of the more important and thoughtful bands. Today, 2003’s The Artist In the Ambulance and 2005’s Vheissu are considered some of the most vital post-hardcore albums out there. But unlike some of their peers, Thrice were more interesting in going down the jagged emotional rabbit hole than performing covers for blockbuster soundtracks, and so have remained just under the radar of those skimming only the surface of the genre. At the same time, those willing to take the plunge will always consider them one of the scene’s greats.
If there was any band whose power and talent would’ve turned thrash metal’s Big Four into a Big Five, it’d be Exodus. With guitarist Kirk Hammett moving to Metallica in the ’80s and guitarist Gary Holt later playing in Slayer after the death of Jeff Hanneman, the band not only has a badass back catalog, they also have one hell of a pedigree. But unlike some of their peers, Exodus were always an abrasive, no-fucks-given thrash outfit, who made metal their home rather than try for a seat at the mainstream table. They may have never blown up in a mainstream way, but at least that scared off the posers.
The Dillinger Escape Plan
Arguably the biggest band on this list. Though they were at one time the biggest underground band in the world, The Dillinger Escape Plan were always at their best in a mid-sized-to-large venue where they could really climb the walls. But that hands-on, DIY life can burn a guy out, and for TDEP it got to a point where they’d rather break-up than try to chase a dream. “I’m 40 years old and I loaded a trailer last night,” guitarist Ben Weinman told Vice at the time, adding, “If we stop doing things, it’s not because someone got in trouble or sued, because all that stuff has happened multiple times. It’s because we just don’t want to be a gimmick.” Right the fuck on.
Over their whole career, but especially since the release of 2013’s Earth Rocker, Clutch have become one of rock’s most reliable mainstays, playing a brand of boogie biker-metal that no other band can imitate. That said, Clutch will always be at least two rows down any festival line-up, performing to huge crowds but never mind-blowing ones. At the same time, this somehow serves to make the band even more endearing than if they were chart-toppers – Clutch may only be able to pull 800 to 1,000 people a night, but you know those 1,000 people are coming out to shake their tailfeathers.
It’s not as though Torche haven’t had their fair share of acclaim – the band’s second full-length album Meanderthal was voted Decibel Magazine’s Album of the Year in 2008. However, this eventually put the Floridian quartet at a crossroads between writing delicious radio rock and making big bucks, or going the Melvins’ route and continuing at a somewhat more experimental pace. The band seems to have chosen the latter, making them perpetually just too throbbing and crushing for your fairweather listener. That said, after the sweaty good time they showed us in our Brooklyn K! Pit, we’ll watch them pack a club any night of the week.
Mindless Self Indulgence
Simply put, there is a ceiling one puts in place with songs about cocaine and fingering. Mindless Self Indulgence are one of the late ’90s biggest breakout bands, their unique flavour of techno-fetish-cyberpunk striking a chord with millions of weirdos the worldwide. That said, they have also made what appears to be a concerted effort in alienating fans with gentle sensibilities, writing jaunty songs about the most perverse and vulgar topics imaginable. The loss might be mass appeal, but the gain is a fan loyalty and devotion that most mainstream artists only wished they could command.
Though they appeared on the scene during the early ’00s metalcore boom, Devildriver always went a little more extreme than most, with Dez Fafara doing straight-up death growls at times and never once adding a sentimental, soaring chorus to the band’s songs. While other frontmen of the time were rocking the fleur-de-lis, Dez was sporting the Sigil Of Baphomet. The price of this, of course, was that Devildriver were the Slayer of the scene, attracting tattooed metal fans instead of the middle-of-the-road rock listeners that gravitated toward Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall. That said, catch their live set and you’ll see nothing but moving bodies and a front row that knows every word of every track.
Since their formation, Nile have had only one real MO: write epic technical death metal songs about Ancient Egypt (and occasionally the other ancient cultures around Ancient Egypt). While this is awesome, it’s also both challenging – Nile songs don’t really have hooks – and, let’s be honest, a little nerdy. These two layers have kept Nile from ever rising to the same heights as other brutal bands who sing about gore or being angry. At the same time, the appreciation shown to them by those metal fans who get it is considerable, and they’re a band who will forever be revered throughout the scene.
Ask fans of nu-metal and post-hardcore, and Glassjaw were an absolutely crucial band, influencing the entire state of heavy music. And that’s certainly accurate – 2000’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence is a Ross Robinson-produced rager, and 2002’s Worship And Tribute is considered one of the decade’s most important albums. But the beauty of Glassjaw is that they fit into a solid niche that perfectly scratches the itch of a specific kind of listener. This, plus the fact that most fans prefer their experimental post-hardcore somewhere intimate and industrial, which in turn kept them from ever being a huge draw.
Read this: In praise of Glassjaw
Californian late-’00s act Warbringer are one of the finest modern thrash bands around, and 2017’s Woe To The Vanquished was arguably their best album yet. But perhaps it was the swift rise and fall of the late 2000s thrash craze into which they were swept that made them an awesome band who have stayed relatively low to the ground. It’s also worth noting that unlike many bands of that wave, Warbringer never wrote fun nostalgia tracks about pizza and Turtles In Time – it was furious battlefield thrash, though and through. In any event, these guys are much-respected, but will always be for the diehard metalheads.
When they emerged in late ’90s during the nu-metal movement, Sevendust were one of the more interesting bands of the era, due in no small part to the vocals of Lajon Witherspoon. The band later embraced a hard rock sound that many tried to imitate, making them an American festival mainstay. At the same time, Sevendust have always been a band for rock fans who can handle something different and interesting, and though their sound is a little more accessible these days, they definitely still worship their metal roots. As such, they remain a huge-yet-underground band, who those in the know will always make time for.
My Dying Bride
In the annals of underground metal, My Dying Bride will always be hailed for their merging of goth and doom metal. However, as vital as they are within that specific genre niche, they’re not a particularly happy band – 1993’s Turn Loose The Swans earned them a high ranking on our list of the bleakest albums ever – and so even at Europe’s massive metal fests, they’re just not a band to mosh and pound beers to. This has made them a band better listened to alone or in select company, which always places a cap on how huge a band can become. The endless depths of human misery that can be withstood by the human soul will always be kind of a hard sell.
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