Elitism in Metal: A Musing

What I love about metal is that it’s such a diverse genre. I don’t know if I’d necessarily characterise myself as a metalhead, but the majority of music I listen to definitely falls within the remit of rock/metal. Generally I’m looking for something new or different when it comes to music, and metal often provides. It’s a genre that can contain bands as disparate and unique as Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Strapping Young Lad.

Metal feeds off this difference, utilising motifs from other genres and internalising them to create new music. Opeth have segued into the prog rock field in recent years, reviving a lot of the sounds of the 70s; the post-hardcore band Closure in Moscow‘s sophomore album went down an unexpected funk concept album route; Devin Townsend – my favourite musician – has variously introduced new age, folk, ambient and classical elements into his vast discography.

There’s a veritable feast of soundscapes on offer – something for everyone. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that it breeds snobbery; a genre elitism. Be it the heated debate in YouTube comment sections over whether the term “deathcore” or “melo-death” best describes a particular song, or the keyboard warriors hating on other people’s favourite bands for no reason. For such an open-minded genre, there’s a lot of narrow-minded fans.

Listen to Yourself
xkcd: Listen to Yourself, found here

Two recent episodes in early 2017 have highlighted this, and I’ve given them names and titles, because why the hell not?
Why Aren’t Linkin Park So Heavy?

The first single from Linkin Park‘s upcoming album One More Light was released last week to a divided audience.

Linkin Park were one of the big nu-metal acts of the noughties, headlining festivals and garnering acclaim for their first two albums: Hybrid Theory and Meteora. Their third album Minutes to Midnight was a much more radio-friendly foray into a more generic variety of rock. A Thousand Suns ventured into ambient synth territory, Living Things married the electronica of A Thousand Suns with the rockier sensibility of Minutes to Midnight, and most recent album The Hunting Party returned to a heavier, rockier vibe

So with Linkin Park, there’s no precedent for a particular sound. They’re known for their experimentation with each album. They lost a lot fans around their third and fourth albums for this, but they’ve always forged on and pursued the projects they’ve wanted to explore and, for that, I admire them.

It was odd then, that the new single Heavy received such a vitriolic reception. Already numerous “what Heavy should’ve sounded like” videos have come out featuring reinterpreted versions of the song in Linkin Park‘s old style. I’m not sure why anyone would do this seeing as their nu-metal phase ended nearly fifteen years ago.

Perhaps part of the problem comes down to the song title, although one would hope that people wouldn’t think so simplistically as to expect the name of a single to be a description of the music therein. At this point I feel the need to point out that the band The Heavy are a weird blend of indie rock, blues and soul just in case anyone becomes misled.

Granted previous album The Hunting Party pursued a heavier sound, but the album before didn’t – there’s not enough continuity in Linkin Park‘s career trajectory for anyone to assume what the next album will sound like.

Some have pointed out the song’s similarities to mainstream pop groups like The Chainsmokers, but you could say this for a lot of bands utilising a female vocalist and synths. I’m not going to pretend I think Heavy is a particularly original song, or even a very good one, but the angst and butthurt over a band that abandoned its metal roots over a decade ago is ridiculous. They can – and indeed have – revisited those heavier influences since, but they aren’t tied to them; nothing they’ve done suggests this. People are free to judge Heavy on its merits or lack thereof, but to whine about in a metal framework is completely unwarranted.
“Can Suicide Silence Engage in the Act of One or Both of Their Namesakes?”

But if you want a sign of the hypocrisy and misplaced anger of the metal community, you need look no further than the recent debacle surrounding the newest album of Suicide Silence.

Suicide Silence quickly became one of the principal bands in the emergent deathcore genre of the noughties, which married the influence of death metal with metalcore, creating intensely heavy and complex riffs over a variety of low and high screaming and growls. It was a brutal genre and Suicide Silence’s music was very much testament to that.

Tragically, after their third album, the band’s singer Mitch Lucker was killed in a motorcycle accident. Around 10 months later the band confirmed they were working on new material with All Shall Perish vocalist Eddie Hermida fronting the group. They released a fourth album, You Can’t Stop Me to generally positive reviews. To my ear, it definitely took a step away from Suicide Silence’s original sound towards something less complex and more generic, but it kept most fans happy.

The anticipation for their 2017 self-titled release was tempered somewhat when they announced they would incorporate clean-singing into their work for the first time. The metal community has always had a problem with clean singing appearing where it once wasn’t, so some backlash over this was to be expected.

But when first single Doris was released, it was to almost unanimous hate and ridicule. The problem seemed to be the falsetto vocals that introduced the chorus to the song. It’s easy to see how people could think these vocals are out of place, and the clean-sung chorus wasn’t popular with die-hard fans. A second single, Silence was released and didn’t fare any better despite the lack of falsetto vocals.

As of writing, Doris has 15,000 likes on YouTube and 28,000 dislikes; Silence has 6,000 likes and 14,000 dislikes. Approximately two-thirds of listeners are hating what they’re hearing from this album enough to give it a thumbs down. That likely indicates a serious deficit in the bands’ sales and reputation, perhaps enough to finish them off as a group depending on how they react to their newfound enmity.

The larger issue seems to be that a lot of the cleaner vocals have a Deftones/Korn vibe, highly reminiscent of ’90s nu-metal. In and of itself, this isn’t an issue and, indeed, on their own merit neither of these songs is bad, let alone deserving of the hate they’ve received. But the metal community hates change, especially to a lighter form of music. Why this should be is confusing but one theory is that, as metal is a reactionary genre that seeks to differentiate itself from mainstream music, any move towards that mainstream that people have actively sought to define themselves as removed from necessarily feels like a betrayal.
How can Bands Handle this Problem? 

The issue of changing sound comes up time and time again in metal, though it’s usually not such an issue as to be the death knell of a band, as it could be for Suicide Silence based on the current negative reception. Opeth eschewed their harsh vocals and a certain level of their metal influences in favour of clean singing and a fusion of prog-rock and jazz elements that has defined their sound on their past three releases. Nonetheless, with each and every subsequent release the fan debate of “Should Opeth have changed their name?” arises. The main argument being: this is good, but it’s not what Opeth was for their first nine albums. A fair observation, but still a narrow-minded one which indicates a desire to ban bands from becoming too far removed from their original sound; and one that discounts Opeth‘s original ability to constantly evolve whilst keeping the harsh vocals.

Even Lamb of God attracted hate for including on track with clean vocals on their newest album. That was just one single, but the naysayers and doom-mongers of the “That’s Not Metal” movement jumped on it straight away – how could a metal band ever possibly consider experimenting with clean vocals?

Perhaps one solution is to establish yourself as an evolving artist from the start. David Bowie reinvented himself with every album and other artists have learnt from this, endeavouring to make a new artistic statement with each record. This is particularly the case in prog with such musical auteurs as Steven Wilson and Devin Townsend.

Devin Townsend epitomises another such solution: different names for different projects. Devin has recorded variously under the names Strapping Young LadDevin TownsendThe Devin Townsend BandThe Devin Townsend Project and Casualties of Cool. The various eponymous band names started out as reflections of the differences between each project, but it rapidly became clear that Devin puts so much of himself into each record as for them to be thematically linked to an extent that no fan would really object to them all being recorded under his name. He seems to have realised this now as he’s kept The Devin Townsend Project moniker alive for more than just the planned 4 albums that it was going to cover. Ironically, despite his experimentation with band names, Devin is one of the few artists who could get away with never having to do that thanks to fulfilling the first criterion: he always evolves.

The third and final possible remedy is to find other creative outlets for new sounds. Plenty of artists are doing this, forming new side-projects or going on to work with other bands. This is rarely out of a worry that a new project wouldn’t fit with their current band’s work so much as a desire to work with a different band that explores a new dynamic.

Various musicians do this. The boys from Mastodon have a collective wealth of other projects to their name: Killer Be Killed, Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, Gone is Gone, Arcadea, and many more.

Similarly, Alter Bridge‘s Myles Kennedy currently works as Slash‘s key vocalist, and has been working on solo material, and Mark Tremonti has his own eponymous project that explores his more thrashy influences.

Greg Puciato and Ben Weinman from The Dillinger Escape Plan have explored other projects: Puciato with electronica outfit The Black Queen, and Weinman with Giraffe Tongue Orchestra as well as overseeing the Party Smasher label which the band founded.

Of course, no band should feel the need to compromise their artistic expression in order to avoid a backlash from narrow-minded fans who are ill-equipped to cope with change. Music should be judged on its merits, not relentlessly compared with prior work. If a band make a bad album, then call it as such, but if a band change to a style that you don’t like, that’s a reflection of your own taste, not of their inability to make good music. It’s a distinction that all too many metalheads seem incapable of recognising. We can only hope that Suicide Silence‘s new direction attracts an audience that appreciates it, just as Linkin Park have succeeded in doing with their own musical experiments.

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