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Metal as fundamentalism and conformity

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You guys often write comments that are better than my actual posts, so I’m going to start featuring some of them here. That’s a threat, not a promise. Just kidding – I’ll ask your permission before I do so. “Austino” agreed to let me repost his comment in response to Mike Scalzi’s last column, Is there possible accounting for taste? In that column, Scalzi wondered what the deal is with extreme metal. Austino responds below. – C.L.

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While there are a handful of “extreme” metal bands that really are putting out progressive, original music, most are merely painting by numbers with no more sincerity or originality than the millions of pop punk bands that sprung up in the ’90s in the wake of Green Day and Offspring, or hair metal bands that exploded (and then imploded) in the ’80s.

The reality is that most genres exist because a very few bands did something original and interesting (those two things don’t necessarily go hand in hand) and then a hundred followed, copying merely the style and stagnating the scene. Most “black” or “death” metal bands have more in common with a secretary who dresses up like a slutty nurse on Halloween than they do with the pioneering groups they seek to so flawlessly emulate. They put on the clothes, they play the same riffs with the same tone, and get some guy to scream over the records (in a low voice for Death and a high voice for Black – that’s really ground-breaking) and, really, it’s just like putting on a costume.

The truth is that a great many people get into metal for the same reason that a great many jocks get into Creed. The desire to fit in is almost the same as the desire to not fit in. And extreme metal gives the listener the comfort, and an ego boost, in knowing that “others don’t ‘get’ this, I’m more extreme than those jocks who beat me up because I listen to Gothol’s Tomb and dress like Count Grishnakh” (never mind he was having a laugh). This is why so many fans turn on extreme bands whenever they earn even the slightest modicum of success. Suddenly they lose that exclusivity.

How many times have you heard someone crucify Cradle of Filth and call them sellouts, describe them as too commercial or berate their fans as trend followers? And how many of those same people have “The Trooper” as their ringtone? Somehow Cradle of Filth is a pop band and Iron Maiden retain their metal cred when objectively, Dani Filth’s vocals make Bruce Dickinson’s sound like Mariah Carey’s. If Maiden came on the speakers at my gym, nobody would bat an eye – however, if somehow “Her Ghost in the Fog” got through, you can bet people would actually stop working out and go to the front desk and complain. Isn’t that extreme?

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Cradle of Filth – “Her Ghost in the Fog”

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Now I’m not saying COF is a good band, or Maiden for that matter. I’m leaving the subjective out of this for right now. Objectively, the reason COF get stick from many fans is because a lot of people like them, and that is the antithesis of what many people who get into metal are looking for. They want something that no one likes, that they feel is their own, so that they can say “I get this and you don’t, and therefore I’m better than you.” For most humans, everything is driven by insecurity. And the same attitudes many extreme metal fans harbor have just as much in common with fundamentalist Christians or any other sect seeking something out to make them feel better than everyone else. The very idea that you are superior to someone because of some band you listen to is 1) absurd, 2) sound evidence you’re an imbecile, and most importantly 3) exactly the same sentiment behind sexism or racism.

Yet for a genre that is supposed to be “anti”, metal has just as many rules and trends as even the most extreme high school clique. I live in Phoenix, and there is a shop that sells metal records (and lame pentagram candles and incense and black t-shirts… one-stop shopping for your new identity). If I walk in wearing a Blind Guardian t-shirt (a band I truly love), I’m greeted with warm smiles and salutations… like Norm entering Cheers. However, when I enter wearing a suit because I’m off work, suddenly I get the evil eye from the staff and body language that more clearly delivers the message “Get out and fuck off” than the ghosts in that house from Poltergeist. Never mind that the same attitude that cultivated my taste in metal and led me down the path to Blind Guardiandom was also applied to my fashion. I’m wearing a Marc Jacobs suit – the Blind Guardian of men’s clothing – not some Men’s Warehouse parachute. There’s a reason that Nick Cave looks stylish in his suits and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones look like monkeys… and someone who seeks and studies good fashion will appreciate that difference, just the same way that someone who seeks out and studies good music can tell the difference between Six Feet Under and Opeth.

That attitude, pure, open-minded, art-seeking… or whatever you want to call it – that is what should be the common thread uniting fans of metal. And it should be applied to all forms of artistic expression, because goddamn it, life is boring and full of boring, derivative crap. I’ve heard many people praise metal for its breadth of styles. You have power metal, symphonic metal, black metal, death metal, doom metal, drone metal, thrash metal, sludge metal, NWOBHM, melodic Swedish death metal, and Manowar. And yet what are those genres if not 2 or 3 bands that originated the sound and then 100 that copied it to perfection. The reason these genres are so clearly defined is because the bands within them are so unoriginal. The labels that sign them realize that as long as they get the album art and logo right (and by that I mean copying what everyone else is doing), they can sell records because the fans will buy exactly what is put in front of them so long as it looks right.

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Blind Guardian, probably not wearing Marc Jacobs

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Some labels have even taken to reissue albums from the ’70s that have no association with metal whatsoever, re-branding and repackaging the music with new “metal” covers and then coloring the vinyl just enough to sell to die-hard metal collectors who don’t think twice ::cough:: Comus ::cough::

As a musician, I realize that with Guitar Rig, I could bang out 8 songs in any one of the aforementioned number [of] styles. Throw the appropriate drum beats on with my Drumkit from Hell (it was good enough for Devin Townsend even with Gene Hoglan on speed dial), and with one poorly lit photoshoot and the appropriate airbrushed art, a record deal from Rise Above or Southern Lord wouldn’t be far off. And yet I don’t. And until I cultivate an original sound, I won’t.

So are you not “getting” extreme music? No. And it’s not because you’re applying an outmoded model of analysis. It’s because you’re analysing it at all. It’s a trend, an element of a pre-packaged identity. And there’s nothing more to “get” than there is to understanding why ska fans “skank.”

Bands shouldn’t really fit into genres. They should just do what they do. The very nature of genre implies bands trying to sound alike, and that should be abhorrent. I’m interested in good bands. Bands that people respond to, at least enough to recommend to someone else. But when someone says, “You should check out this new wave of noise rock bands”, something’s wrong.

And BTW, Slough Feg is definitely an originator and not a follower.

PS. Please repress Ape Uprising and Traveller on vinyl.

— Austino

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