Reading Alex Kessler’s “Sidelined music as valid as mainstream” a couple issues back left a bad taste in my mouth. Others in Atlanta’s metal scene agree: it paints a picture of the metal genre that seems pretentious and has misplaced priorities. We understand that Kessler is trying to give exposure to his interest, one perceived as “niche.” The problem is that, frankly, he isn’t helping.
Some perspective: I am one of several hosts of WREKage, one of WREK Radio’s shows featuring metal programming. I am active in the local metal scene, being familiar with those who help make it all possible, including the band members, the people booking the shows, the diehard fans who attend every sweltering basement show, etc. I think it’s safe to say that I have a certain degree of “expertise” in my favorite genre and that I can speak for many of its local participants. The general attitude presented in Kessler’s article just doesn’t gel with the community.
One of my concerns is with his description of the style’s “ingredients.” The article emphasizes technical skill, application of theory, and a foundation in classical and jazz. Sure, there are bands that incorporate these into their sound, but this is a relatively small group, and even fewer bands within this group that do it well. This is largely because while the technical skill of bands like Dream Theater (Berklee College of Music alumni, mind you, not UC Berkeley; the ‘Nique could stand to employ some fact-checking) cannot be denied, it’s at the cost of complexity. Bands like Haggard may exhibit an interest in the Baroque movement, but the focus is largely on these gimmicky trappings to distract from the uninspired chugging that lies beneath. The song design itself isn’t any more “sophisticated.” The result is less “Bach” and more “Disney.” The comparison to Wagner is a naïve one as well, as it’s nowhere near accurate to suggest that all metal is a single-minded attempt to replicate a feel of “great battles and awe-inspiring victories.”
Kessler also seems to advocate the idea that metal is special, or at least worth respect, due to its treatment of “mature” themes, taking care to avoid the reality that these bands tend to tackle their lyrical subjects with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I don’t think Cannibal Corpse are tortured geniuses. Regardless, it isn’t as if metal fans, or fans of any genre at that, care one way or the other what their favorite bands talk about. It’s largely irrelevant to enjoying the music, especially in a genre such as metal where a good chunk of bands make it a point to be unintelligible.
There’s no need to defend metal. It needs no legitimization with the mainstream. It’s in direct contrast with the fundamental attitude of metal, which for the most part doesn’t even want mainstream success. Many metal bands take pride in being as unappealing to the masses as possible. And those that do try to break free of the underground tend to do so at a cost, undermining their credibility and losing the interest of those fans who loved them for what they were. This is different from simply “evolving” their sound.
Next, Kessler seems to refer only to a kind of metal that developed from the sound of bands like Motörhead, making the claim that “fast guitar playing is a staple of any metal band.” This neglects the foundations of the genre in bands like Black Sabbath, who drew their sound largely from blues. Calling metal “percussive” is also misleading. It’s not a valid characterization, especially the remark about “excessive” distortion. It serves a purpose, so what’s “excessive” about it? And what’s not “tonal” about bands like Dio? This isn’t noise or ambient, it’s an offshoot of rock. It hurts more when these comments stand alongside ones like “techniques like sweep picking and tapping facilitate the study of moving arpeggios over shifting tonal centers.” If this doesn’t put people off of metal, I don’t know what will. But I guess you could always just whip up a GUI interface with Visual Basic to teach people about metal.
A popular image of metal, one of self-importance and showboating, isn’t helped by weak expositions like Kessler’s. The result is pop culture representations, comedic or otherwise, like Metalocalypse which laugh at the community instead of with it. The further stigmatization of metal and its fans isn’t appreciated, regardless of intent. And many of us believe the best metal bands today aren’t the ones that get fancy music degrees and sell out arenas, but are the ones found in bars and basements where the real emotional impact of the music can be experienced. This isn’t a matter of taste for the most part; it’s a matter of principle. You don’t communicate that to an outsider by trying to explain to them the application of theory involved or what the academic substance of the lyrical content is trying to convey—you just share one of the buds from your mp3 player.