Going to Extremes: How Much Crazier Can Metal Get?
The band Extreme was one of the last gasps of one major strain of what most people used to call "metal" until the '90s really kicked in (i.e., a very late hair band, vaguely arty/funky/conceptual though nobody remembers them that way, with a huge singer-songwriter-strummy power-ballad hit, a singer who later wound up pinch-hitting in Van Halen when nobody cared and a guitarist who halfway made Janet Jackson rock once). So it's kind of weird that "extreme" very soon thereafter became the variable by which metalheads with no use for Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt wound up judging their metal. It was a transparent sucker-bait concept from the git-go -- right up there with "extreme sports." Energy-drink music, oh boy! But somehow, it stuck, which I guess from a marketing perspective means it "worked."
So there I was last month, in Austin, Tex., where I live, watching a South by Southwest panel called "None More Black: How Extreme Can Metal Go?", which included five headbang-bizlet movers and shakers (MetalSucks.net editor-in-chief Ben Umanov, HD2 Metal radio dude Chuck Loesch, Century Media A&R guy Steven Joh, Relapse Promotions director Bob Lugowe, and guitarist Mike Schleibaum from the D.C. melodic death metal band Darkest Hour). Here's the panel description: "Metal music and culture has, from the beginning, intended to push the boundaries of socio-political-religious discourse and sound ever-darker and ever more extreme. But where has that put the genre, and where does it go from here? At what point do we hit the sonic extremes/limits and devolve into chaos? Is that okay? Is that the point? What does the future hold for extreme music?"
Let's just say they were a whole lot less cynical about these questions than I would have been. They did start out at a truism that I always deemed self-evident back when such demographics seemed worth making a case for: namely, that metal is a music of rebellion in the sense that it represents defiance of dumb authority by teenagers (traditionally white working-class ones, and once upon a time mostly males, but now seemingly whoever wants in). They're looking for something to grasp onto in a wicked messed-up world, while seemingly reflecting that world. "A place for the rejected," as Schleibaum put it. Or, per Loesch, "finally a group that you feel like you can belong to because your parents are divorced or there's a bully at school that might beat you up."
And (this is me talking now) probably part of metal's power is that, at some point, the tormented gets to play the tormentor -- hence the songs of Axl Rose, or Korn, or 5 million interchangeable bull-in-china-shop hardcore/crossover/metalcore/whatever brats and counting over the past three decades who curiously think they're being insurrectionist by sounding exactly like each other. And hence a lifestyle clique that those bands' record labels can easily target with rote rituals, just like all the other revolting genres out there that all overlap by now anyway.
Further diversion: A couple hours before the panel, I watched a long line of ill-advisedly body-pierced yet absolutely harmless-looking adolescents with dermatological issues coiling around the block on Red River, many of them wearing T-shirts extolling bands hardly anybody over the age of 25 can tell apart without a score sheet: Asking Alexandria, Devil Wears Prada (both of whom had Top 10 albums in Billboard last year), Forever the Sickest Kids (who I guess are more pop-punk), Chelsea Grin. Apparently a free show was about to happen at Red 7, but I was just tickled to confirm that there are apparently human beings out there who actually like these artists!
Not to blow my own horn, but here's a thought I published in a metal book called Stairway to Hell 22 years ago (= 1990, the year of Extreme!): "What the starched shirts in the record industry's penthouses learned quickly, and it is a lesson they take heed of to this very day, is that once one headbang generation has had its fill, another generation is just sitting down to the table ... Because the cycle is eternal, marketing strategists can revitalize and/or redundify the headbang appetite (preferably in watered-down form) almost annually merely by stamping labels like 'New!' and 'Improved!' on the cereal box." Still true!
Like my Boston Phoenix pal and fellow panel spectator Dan Brockman pointed out, metal has always been a traditional and conservative music at heart; even the fonts remain the same. And if you think the genre's outlook has evolved much over time, consider these attributes that Lester Bangs ascribed to it in his late-'70s metal essay in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: "violence," "aggression," "rapine," "carnage," "technological nihilism," "nothing more than a bunch of noise."
Which brings us back to extremeness, right? Those SXSW panelists seemed pretty much in agreement (with each other, if not me) that metal seems inexorably to be headed in an ever-increasingly "extreme" direction. And not just the underground-y death/black/grind/noise stuff (pig's blood beloved by Austria's Belphegor and goats' heads abused by Sweden's Watain and maggots appropriated by Denver's Cephalic Carnage were cited), but contemporary commercial fare too. Schleibaum -- who admitted that, growing up, he latched onto lefty vegan Syracuse metal-punks Earth Crisis more than devil-worship bands as a means of pissing off his ex-nun mom -- was fairly on point here. Since the desire to "be outlandish in any way to get attention" is intrinsic in metal culture, he theorized, "when the extreme is pushed, it becomes the norm."
When Schleibaum first heard Meshuggah, for instance, "I was like, 'There's not a chord change in the first three minutes, how will anybody like that?'" But that band's palm-muted high-math-score sonics were eventually adopted by metalcore lunkheads galore. (Or, okay, "djent" lunkheads -- I just learned that term a few months ago. Google it.) One kid, the panelists said, might yearn for something more extreme than Metallica and hence stumble upon Cradle of Filth, but another who's only heard Disturbed might think they're as extreme as you can get. "The mainstream learns from the underground," Lugowe offered. "Look at Slayer; they're totally mainstream now. Or Slipknot. Or Pantera." Schleibaum suggested that, give or take Dimebag Darrell's guitar wizardry, "If Pantera came out now, they wouldn't be extreme." Loesch said that a decade ago, he never would have expected to hear a band as extreme as L.A.'s Five Finger Death Punch on the radio.
If you're getting confused long about now, don't feel alone. I personally never cared about Pantera in the first place, and I really don't get the amazement at Five Finger Death Punch -- who've had two Top 10 albums, and who basically sound like an even hackier corporate approximation of rap-metal-era Anthrax crossed with frequent '00s chart-toppers System of a Down. But then, I've long figured the preoccupation with extremeness turned most metal into an unlistenable novelty shtick decades ago, so what the hell do I know?
Century Media's Joh talked on the panel about being a teenage Def Leppard/Quiet Riot fan who knew his life was changed forever the first time he saw the cover art for Slayer's Hell Awaits in a magazine. And honestly, the fact that he hadn't even heard Slayer's music at that point says a lot -- it's directly connected to Relapse's Lugowe stressing the profit potential of gross-out band merch, and Schleibaum (who said the real metal-musician bucks are overseas, or in instrument endorsements) wondering out loud what all these extreme trappings have to do with, you know, the music.
But OK, they all talked about the music too -- that bands like Agoraphobic Nosebleed might be pushing it faster than ever, and some other band has a drum kit "as big as this table," and "Every Last Drop" by Chicago's Nachtmystium (Joh said) is extreme without being heavy at all, and you really can't deny Burzum's influence but what Umanov called Burzum member Varg's "extreme racism and bigotry" sure does complicate things, and maybe Satanic-sounding Christian metal bands like Iowa's For Today are scarier than alleged real Satanic ones because when they beseech kids to "get on your knees before the king of kings," kids actually might obey them. And besides, a few panelists predicted, it looks like dubstep might just out-metal metal anyway, since it's polarizing and kids making it don't have to haul so much equipment around and kids listening to it prefer partying to standing in the corner. Or something like that.
Whatever happens, sooner or later, the tables are destined to turn: "We're gonna be on the side of the fence saying, 'Those kids are crazy,'" Schleibaum predicted. "Get ready, because you're gonna blog about it, you're gonna hate it, but everybody's gonna love it." No matter how extreme you think you are, somebody younger, someday, will turn you into the new Extreme.