Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Three Ages of Metal So Far: And the New Dark Age

If you don't read this blog for metal, you'll want to skip this one. If you do, gather round, and listen to tales of yore by your metal elders!

Metal has actually run in cycles from its speciation as a genre until now, with dark ages and Cambrian explosions alike. Here I argue that we're probably entering a new dark age but that the coming-online of parts of the world who've not yet contributed to global metal complicates this and may save us from the 2010's answer to Nu Metal.

The Iron Age of Metal and the Big 3: 1970-1975

I'm not going to rehash the Central Dogma of Metal, except to note that the early days of metal in the early 1970s were really dominated by 3 bands: Sabbath, Zep and the unfairly underemphasized Deep Purple, who often sound more like the bands that followed in the 80s than the other two. (For my money Zep is the least impressive of the bunch.)

The First Dark Age: 1975-1983

In terms of bands which inspired the next wave of metal, after the mid-70s there was an 8 year lull with the notable exception of Iron Maiden. Little is known about this era or the other bands that populated it, much like the Sea People of the ancient Near East.

The Golden Age of Metal: 1983-1994

This coincides with thrash, speed, etc. metal (which were stupid terms because they were all equivalent, since none of them ever distinguished any characteristic of any band from any other band), and contains the Big 4: Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer and Metallica. The dark age here snuck up on us: 91-94 was the initially non-obvious backside of this curve. The genre was no longer underground once Metallica started appearing on MTV and the radio. Carcass went to Sony, then was shown the door. There were some ominous motifs noted even at the time: album covers and videos started being overrun by old men. Perhaps the genre knew its energy was flagging.

The Great Dark Age: 1994-2001

1994's Slayer release was not up to their usual standard, perhaps because it was Lombardo-less. Wearing on into the mid-90s, Danzig IV was bad (and don't even ask about Blackaciddevil). Sepultura broke up. Worst of all, mosh pits formed at a Belly show outside my dorm window. Everywhere were signs of decay. Bands began dabbling in every other genre, whether for broader acceptance or a need for unlistenable, super avant-garde originality (think of Pestilence, Mordred). I was so traumatized by this that, now that I'm seeing similar trends in prose in works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I tremble for the future of literature in general. This was to be metal's Mannerist Period, except instead of long necks, it was mongrel metal.

There were bright moments during the interegnum. Carcass put out Heartwork at the tail end of the Golden Age and Swansong came out in '96; thereafter Carcass disbanded, an immoral act if ever there was one because it deprived us of future art. Also during this period there were solid releases from one of the Big 4, specifically Megadeth putting out Youthanasia and Cryptic Writings; but Load and Diabolus in Musica didn't give the world what it needed. (Semen on the cover of an album? Did that really seem like a good idea gentlemen?)

Meanwhile, filling in the gap by the late 90s/2000 we had the dreaded nu metal*, the likes of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Korn and Slipknot. These were truly desperate times. In '94 the metal depression was not obvious but in '96 it could not have been denied.

Recovery and the Silver Age: 2001-2009

(Keep in mind that in 2001 I was already 27 and a little out of the metal demographic. So forgive me if these dates are a little later than they were for you.)

The early waves of NWOSDM reaching the U.S. in the late 90s were a real bright spot. In Flames gave me hope that the light of metal was not yet extinguished (by the way, if you think I'm being a little stupidly melodramatic, go read some Billzebub interviews and then come back with your palate cleansed.) In the U.S. the New England metal scene was producing commercially successful bands, but nothing hard except for Hatebreed (and that Seth Putnam comedian was still staggering around.)

There was a major non-music factor that drove the recovery: technology. Metal sites like Blabbermouth appeared that supported the community like never before. During the golden age, there were a couple usenet groups and a couple magazines, but there really was very little two-way communication outside your little circle of 4 metal buddies from your high school or dorm. Culturally I think it helped that metal fans relaxed and started having fun at shows, and appreciating when musicians had fun - instead of trying to impress everyone with how mean and evil and angry you are all the time. (Granted, this was and still is polluted by irony to some degree; some people will do anything to avoid appearing to be made happy by something!) The best early example I saw of the "return to fun", for want of a less stupid-sounding term, was at the Grocery in Manhattan in 2002, which had a weekly live metal karaoke night. What a blast!

Again, as with the beginning of the dark age, the beginning of the recovery and the death of nu metal was not obvious at the time - Limp Bizkit opened for Metallica as late as 2003 - but it was coming, and the recovery had started in retrospect by 2001. I had expected metal would get an infusion from punk and hardcore, which happened - at the Gilman in Berkeley in 2000-2002, if you asked kids in the bands whether they were metal or punk (because they sounded the same), their answer mostly correlated with whether they liked Bad Religion or Pantera better. By 2003 I heard Avenged Sevenfold blaring out of a house in my neighborhood and knew the recovery was on.

2 other minor innovations: it seemed like metal bands had exhausted every cool noun or noun phrase to use as a name by the late 90s, so I wondered if they weren't going to start using verb phrases (As I Lay Dying, Avenged Sevenfold, etc.) I'd also expected metal to start raiding other religions for novel eschatology and theodicy vocabulary, and was satisifed to see this had happened when I saw Shadowsfall open for In Flames at the Glass House in L.A. ("the First Noble Truth"). (Side note: they had TVs embedded in every surface, including the floor, and were cycling the eye-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou. Try to relax while that shit's playing before you've had your second Guiness.)

Before moving on, a word is required for the excellent upper Midwestern metalcore scene in the mid-aughts; Dead to Fall and Black Dahlia Murders come to mind. Other innovative American acts that are still with us include The Sword, Pelican, Mastodon, along with a peppering of excellent cerebral European metal (Lyzanxia). By the mid-aughts it seemed that musicians composed innovative metal while recognizing that there were rules of composition they could choose to deviate from, or not. Conventions had been set. Silent Civilian, for example, strikes me as an outstanding band that's dead-set on producing great metal, rather than neurotic about "originality" (think of Handel: was he worried about "originality", or about writing good music?) While it might've been hard for me to admit this at 18, this is to the genre's credit (and Silent Civilian's - listen to this and try to tell me it's not excellent. This is pretty cool too.)

Descent Into A New Dark Age: 2009-?

A new world not quite so brave, one might even say - in fact, right on the edge. (One of my top rules for living: always work in Carcass lyrics when you can.) But what happened? Again we've lost our way. By Cloud Connected, In Flames had turned into Abba. For that matter, name a band that became well-known in the past 2 years that you really dig and expect to be around in another 2 years. By the end of the last decade bands were making claims that they had written Ride the Lightning Part II (sorry Trivium), and fallen far short. So I have some bad news for you: we're now at the beginning of another metal recession. It's never obvious for the first couple years, but here we are. I don't know who will save us (are you a kid playing metal? maybe you!). Unfortunately I might be too old the next time around the block.

My Predictions For the Next Wave of Metal

- Metal will be composed and performed by accomplished musicians (often professionals from other genres) with no axe to grind and no need to prove to people that metal is a real genre. There will also be recognized and not-resisted well-established rules of metal composition - metal has been around long enough at this point that there's no debating it, and the overstated obsession with "originality" will decrease. The downside is that, even though metal will be more ubiquitous, there may not be a metal "community" as such anymore. This is partly a result of the internet, which means that subcultures don't scare people anymore - they're too easy to look up on Wikipedia.

- We'll move away from the myth that metal bands are primarily a live phenomenon (Metallica in particular believe this about themselves and it's flatly false). Given piracy, certainly to make money, you will have to do live shows. So studio recordings will have to be either passion-driven and available free, created by kids in high school and college (and hopefully, a searchable online metal resource so the crowd figures out what's good so you don't have to wade through crap); OR, more records will end up being crowd-financed by the distilled fanbase that reads the Twitter-stream equivalent. (This is happening already with movies.) We're also going to see a lot of metal that never came out of a guitar.

- I think the emotional space of metal has been pretty swept-out. It's modern war-dances, and there are only so many variations on that theme. I have no predictions for the direction that sweeping-out will drive it.

- I keep predicting that the rise of middle classes around the world and the internet will result in metal from elsewhere, twisted in unique ways by local tastes. The international brotherhood of metal is ever stronger, but still there are no bands getting to us from China or Argentina. Why not? I largely credit NWOSDM with salvaging metal during the Dark Ages, but I see no emerging non-Anglophone metal scene to save us! This is why we need a directory. Malay metal! Salvadoran metal? Here a plug for the metal scene in Calgary, Alberta, which I stumbled across, and which is awesome - but I never would have known about it otherwise. (By the way, I'm not as active a metal-seeker as I was and if this does exist, please direct me to it.) I imagine there's a lot of pent-up anger in all those new or soon-to-be Middle Eastern democracies - here's a directory of their metal.

- If I'm going to draw another art history analogy, I would say that music in general (outside of the academy) hasn't really been that strongly influenced by computers yet (by that I mean its production, not its distribution). Maybe this is limited by the bandwidth of the human ear and brain; if not, we're going to see a chance in the next decade parallel to what happened when art became abstract in response to being supplanted by photography a century ago. What it might mean to decompose metal into planes, I don't know, but a) it would be cool and b) I eagerly await metal's Picasso and Dali, as opposed to its Michelangelo and Velasquez who have already come. (Meshuggah may already be its Cezanne.)

*Speaking of nu metal, Lars Ulrich once said P.O.D. (remember them? Me neither), a nu-metal band, copied Hallowed Be Thy Name by Iron Maiden. I don't have the axe to grind with Ulrich that a lot of people seem to, having randomly met him once in San Francisco and talked to him (he was nice enough). But I do think he had a lot of chutzpah on this specific point, considering that Ride the Lightning closely tracks Powerslave and Number of the Beast in song structure and lyrical theme, if not direct melodies.

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