10 Of The Most Important Cultural Shifts In Metal
Within any genre of music, change is inevitable. Fads come and go based on sonic progression, which in turn leads to subgenres dominating the musical sphere for periods of time. With heavy metal, though, this takes an epic bent — because its sound is so massive and deafening, and its fans are so dedicated and passionate, minor changes in metal culture are soon blown out of proportion and end up carved into stone in the hallowed halls of the metal gods.
But while new genres and extreme trends usually feel frivolous and fun in retrospect — Man, remember when we all worse JNCOs? — cultural shifts are important and valuable in music. These aren’t just new flavors of the month, they’re broad transitions in the mindset and attitude of those making a certain kind of music. And in the realm of metal, a genre built on gut reactions to an elaborate sound, these shifts are especially important because they’re in touch with sometimes unknowing instinct to the world around them.
Here are 10 of the cultural shifts that forged metal into the descending blade it is today…
The death of the Summer of Love
The tragic aspect of the late ‘60s hippie movement was how hard it ate shit when it tripped over the harsh realities of the world. Coming out of the impressively shallow 1950s, the Love Generation were fueled by sexual and chemical revolution, celebrating peace, freedom, rock’n’roll, and the end of the hideous war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, a series of massive bummers — the Manson Family slayings, the murder at the Altamont Free Concert, and the state-sanctioned assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just a few — shone a light on many of the movement’s shortcomings and internal conflicts, while the eventual desire to make a buck led many revolutionary artists to perform Vegas revues and shill for Coke.
To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, without the crash of the wave that was the ‘60s, heavy metal simply wouldn’t exist. Black Sabbath were obviously products of their industrial surroundings in Birmingham, but it was the realization that darkness might (and probably would) swallow the light that gave their debut such resounding cultural weight. Meanwhile, the dampening parade of the late ‘60s helped birth the biker movement, whose champions approached freedom with a more aggressive, no-nonsense sound booming behind them. The rest, as they say, is history.
READ THIS: The 15 best songs about the Manson Family
The incorporation of punk
Part of the reason we can fully appreciate classic metal like Iron Maiden and Saxon these days is because there’s some metallic alternative. But in the early ‘80s, those bands were the only game in town, while punk and hardcore had their own thriving and somewhat intimidating undergrounds. This caused an amount of conflict that might surprise listeners today — the punks saw the metalheads as geeky longhairs, while the heshers saw the punks as weirdly elitist fashion victims. Metal burrowed itself further into its flowery, over-the-top hole, adding more solos and swords while never getting truly furious.
When bands like Exodus, Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax began incorporating punk’s speed, anger, and hardened crunch into heavy metal riffs, they saved the genre as a whole. Without thrash, metal would’ve been all hair, spandex, and Tolkien, but with the rancor of the punk scene it graduated into a genre that had to be taken seriously. These days, when one thinks of metal as a whole, they usually imagine thrash, and that was thanks in no small part to Black Flag, The Misfits, the Dead Kennedys, and all of the punk bands who kicked the white knights of heaviness into the moat.
The Satanic Panic
Obviously the Satanic Panic — a wave of Christian paranoia throughout the ‘80s that claimed things like heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were leading to child abuse and moral erosion — wasn’t perpetuated by metal bands. The witch hunt in question was driven, as they always are, by folks who could profit off of fear. Figures like Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, the psychiatrist-patient team who wrote the insane and entirely fictional “true crime” bestseller Michelle Remembers, used the movement to make millions; while preacher Bob Larson took to the talk show circuit warning parents that their kids would die if they listened to Slayer.
What the Panic did do, however, was promote transparency and honesty among the metal community. The idea that you could sing about having sex with a corpse and then go home and kiss your kids was novel to Christian audiences, even while it made perfect sense to anyone who loved theater or horror movies. The Panic resulted in plenty of metal bands revealing they were just performers. While this made have ruined the magic for some diehard fans, it also made every wannabe “occult investigator” look like a jackass when they tried to prove that the tipsy Floridians in Deicide were somehow knights in Satan’s service.
The birth of '90s groove
Towards the end of the ‘80s, metal felt out of touch with its roots. While glam was getting more sparkly and shallow by the minute, thrash was trying to shed its party-hard image by being either technically acrobatic, long-winded, overly brutal, or all three. Unless you liked eyeliner, seven-minute thrash epics about the environment, or Possessed, the genre seemingly didn’t have much to offer you. As grunge and alternative reintroduced fans to the syrupy chug of classic rock, it felt like metal had forgotten what made Black Sabbath so interesting in the first place.
Then groove metal saved it all. As bands like Pantera, White Zombie, Prong and Exhorder injected chocolaty, low-end chugs and swinging southern-rock riffs to their music, they added an unprecedented level of heaviness and accessibility to metal’s harsh sound. It wasn’t just that metal was heavy again, but that it was catchy and kind of cool in a dirtbag way. The subgenre also paved the way for similar if slightly more specified forms of metal — the gothic doom of Type O Negative, the stoner groan of Sleep, the diseased sludge of Eyehategod, and eventually the haunted bounce of Korn. These days we may think of groove metal as a husky dude with his shirt off, but we should never forget how vital it was in its time.
The second wave of black metal
Black metal fans are quick to mention that the genre’s first wave wasn’t that which burned churches and committed hate crimes. Bathory, Celtic Frost, and Venom were technically the inventors of black metal, using nasty guitar tones and furious overdriven rhythms to add gruesome darkness to speed metal. They also coined black metal’s fashion with their bondage harnesses and bare-bones corpse paint. But at the end of the day, these were thrash bands — icy, lo-fi thrash bands, sure, but thrash bands all the same.
The second wave, however, gave us black metal as we will always remember it. Not only did the bands go harder in all directions — worse production, more satanic lyrics, bigger spikes, weirder face paint — but they gave the genre its own ethos. Even as it gets laughed at today, the no mosh/no core/no smiles attitude championed by bands like Mayhem, Burzum, and Darkthrone is an idea that has infected every aspect of heavy metal in the public mindset. And while it can’t be condoned, the criminal activity of these bands was a stark reminder that metal wasn’t for normal people, and that there are shadowy corners out there that even your average Obituary diehard isn’t ready to explore.
The seven-string guitar takes over
One of the reasons that hip-hop’s danger eclipsed that of metal’s in the ‘90s was its low end. Hip-hop beats dropped like thousand-ton weights, blowing out subwoofers and making the buzzsaw of thrash metal feel slightly hollow. The guitar, it seemed, had lost its edge compared to the turntable and the drum machine, and for a new generation of kids raised on rap, industrial, and electronica, a wailing solo just couldn’t cut it. Something had to be done.
That’s where the seven-string guitar came in. Originally a virtuoso’s instrument but later utilized most notably by bands like Korn and Deftones, the instrument’s extra low-end string provided riffs with a thick, rattling crunch that suddenly turned guitars into percussion instruments. More so, they helped nail the bounding, arching power of nu-metal’s bounce riffs, those guitar parts born of bent notes that sound perfect for jumping up and down to (which would, in true cultural fashion, eventually lead the seven-string to be vilified by “true metal” fans). With the seven-string, metal officially went from something you heard to something you felt in your teeth.
The return of the guitar solo
Above: Adam D. of Killswitch Engage
The downside of the seven-string guitar’s dominance was that it got rid of all the wild, Wagnerian wails that made the genre’s early days so fun. Heavy metal guitar always had a sense of virtuosic adventure to it that made it feel more exciting, and at the end of the day more rock’n’roll, than that of its peers. But nu-metal’s thick and kinetic sound was a rejection of classical heavy metal tropes, and the one that was cut out the quickest was the guitar solo. In return, most nu-metal bands used whispery, distorted vocal bridges, or just played the song’s central melody as a “solo” — not exactly high-flying.
Two different genres saved the metal guitar solos. The first was metalcore, whose love of European extreme metal also translated into a reverence for acts like Dio and Iron Maiden. The second was pop-punk, which idolized the cheesy suburban metalheads of the ‘80s and whose bands semi-ironically covered acts like Slayer, Twisted Sister, and Judas Priest. As a result, the guitar solo and the appreciation and respect for it flourished once more, and wailing like a banshee in your song was no longer taboo.
Melodic death metal becomes the gold standard
During its infancy, melodic death metal was as morbid and hostile as it gets, even while it was ultra-catchy. Entombed, Dismember, and Dark Tranquility may have written the tastiest licks imaginable, but their lyrics were steeped in nothing but horror movie references and thanatology. When At The Gates released their mind-blowing 1995 epic Slaughter Of The Soul, their intent wasn’t to endear anyone to a larger movement but to scream in the face of authority. Melodeath started like any other metal genre — a pissed-off rallying cry against normalcy.
But as metalcore bands began spreading melodic death metal riffs around in their listenable tracks, more and more artists caught on to just how much fun this genre was. Riffs got more melodic, more infectious; contemporary death metal bands like The Black Dahlia Murder began merging the sound with more brutal tones, while acts that melodeath’s pioneers once idolized — Kreator, Destruction, Exodus — added elements of the genre into their own new music. Arch Enemy, once an underground Swedish phenom, soon became the biggest metal band in the world. Listening to Dismember’s Like An Everflowing Stream, it’s hard to imagine that this genre would ever become metal’s go-to, but today that truth is undeniable.
The mainstream acceptance of prog
The inaccessibility of prog metal was a double-edged sword. One side was that the genre was incredibly technical, and often took some level of music theory knowledge to fully appreciate…or so many young fans were exhaustingly told by the stoners and music buffs who loved it. This lead to reason number two: the fans of prog metal were often very protective and gatekeeper-ish, and seemed wary of any casual metalhead who claimed to love Queensryche or Dream Theater. The result was a genre often pigeonholed as being for nerds and older heads, which did a disservice to the many awesome songs of the scene.
All this changed with bands like Mastodon and Meshuggah. Those acts weren’t afraid to merge prog’s wonky rhythms and galactic imagery with their own more abrasive genres to great effect. Suddenly, fans of death metal and thrash were realizing that they didn’t mind an odd time signature here and there, and that epic quests and philosophical questions went well with the right strain of weed. As a result, metal stopped taking itself too seriously, and allowed itself to re-embrace those insane, far-out concepts that had once been its calling card.
The rise of antifascism
Even if we discount the obvious extreme subcultures of NSBM and skinhead hardcore, heavy metal still retained much of its politically-questionable trappings into the 2010s. These presented themselves in small but gross ways — artists’ bigoted remarks being swept under the rug as “dark senses of humor”, famous musicians’ friendships with members of the white power community being shrugged off (I can’t be expected to agree with all of my peers’ politics being the excuse for chilling with musicians who called for racial cleansing), and bands with solid technical prowess being hailed in every single article as “female-fronted” or “racially diverse.” Metal had come a great distance, but it was still stuck in its old ways.
Maybe it was the election of Donald Trump that launched the current wave of antifascist sentiment in metal. Or maybe the Me Too and Black Lives Matter campaigns putting the world’s true ugliness directly in front of them inspired bands to take a stand beyond “just having a good time.” Whatever its origin, anti-fascist metal is now inherently a part of the scene, giving political bands something to rally with and vehemently apolitical bands something to decry. Sometimes, being loud is about more than turning it up to 11.
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