I have mixed feelings about the concept of fashion. I tend to lump it in with notions of “The Done Thing” and “The Common Consensus”. As in, “Everyone is wearing this, listening to that and eating the other that I must do that too.” It’s not that I want to rebel or to go against the grain per se; I just want to make my own mind up about what I consume. I find fashion alienating, and I always have.
I love heavy music. Call it Metal, Heavy Metal or Extreme Metal, it’s what I like to have filling my ears as I go about my business. The heavy world is full of subgenres of every available hue, and the list of types of heavy music I have at my disposal tends towards the infinite. Things started with hard rock and blues rock, then a bunch of Geordies started growling, and things turned dark. In a good way.
The darkness splintered in to Death Metal and Black Metal. They fused with NWOBHM and Hardcore to produce Thrash, Doom and Power Metals, to name but three of an ever growing list of groups of bands, each with their own commonalities of sound. In heavy music more is most definitely more, and that certainly applies to the number of ways some people with guitars can express themselves.
Heavy music was born of popular bands: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Cream, for instance. It was, for a long time, assumed that it still was part of popular music. It took too long to see that the purpose of heavy music was to run parallel to mainstream music: like all of the fringes, experimental music will provide the energy for the step changes of seasonality which mainstream music thrives upon.
Nu-Metal was a fashion, but I liked it; it was a fusion of metal and hip-hop, and I grew up listening to it. When prevailing tastes changed, I felt alienated. My music had been killed off by newcomers, much like punk had killed off glam metal in the late 70s. I still listened to Nu-Metal, even if the music magazines weren’t going to cover any of the bands I was listening to. This is where heavy music lives.
There is a difference in the ways in which fashion, as an engine for commercial growth, and heavy music, as an art form, progress:
- In fashion, tastes come and go: once something has been popular, consumed and digested, it will be replaced by something new; the old thing will be filed away and discontinued.
- In heavy music, that file remains open: new subgenres spring up all the time, but they never replace the old, because people are still listening to it; they coexist alongside it.
Much like the rest of the music industry, heavy bands began to chase trends. Some bands thrived on the diversification; others wilted. The ones who thrived were most often the ones who had a love of the currently fashionable form of music – be it hip-hop, electronica or balladry. The ones who wilted tended only to offer pale facsimiles of the works they were cashing in on. They were inauthentic.
This lack of authenticity, combined with several well-documented facets of human behaviour led to a number of heavy bands being labelled as “Sell Outs” for refocussing their style away from darkness and towards prevalent styles. Whether this shift was a product of their own tastes or of the threats and intimidations employed by record label management was routinely ignored by naysayers.
It left many “Soft Metal” bands of the 1980s being seen as risible by the incoming generation. It left many bands who had let their hip-hop roots show during the rise of Nu-Metal disband or rename to avoid the latterly toxic Nu-Metal tag. It led to hate campaigns against bands who experimented with non-metallic musical forms Dub Step, Industrial or Shoegaze. Hate campaigns are never appropriate.
However, and however, and however: Heavy music fandom consists of a lot of people who cannot hear the music they love on the radio, and so very rarely get to enjoy that which brings them joy for free. Put simply, they are used to buying their music. And they are used to buying a lot of it. The ordinary, common or garden Metalhead will have a larger music collection than your local library.
Every commercial need is there to be tapped by business, and heavy music is the same as everyone else in this regard. While large music labels thrive on an ever changing world of fashion and trend – and they do it well – smaller labels are able to be more focussed, fostering generation after generation of heavy talent. Savvy business minds and social media usage has led to a point where heavy music is without fashion: it is its own thing; it is capable of sustaining itself financially, at least to a minimal extent. Bands can plough their own furrow, regardless of trends in the world at large.
Bands who had revitalised their sound every album or so, in order to maximise sales, have been able to return to their core sounds, refreshed, and with the full knowledge that people are listening.
While it was music magazines which left me feeling alienated when Nu-Metal died a death all those years ago – the prevailing consensus changed from a hip-hop underpinning to music based on a love of NWOBHM, and so Melodeath and Metalcore came to the fore – I can now see that they merely hold a mirror up to the world which the metal fans are creating for themselves. This is a good thing.
Most of the new bands being championed by the likes of Metal Hammer currently have a Hardcore underpinning, and many have a love of Thrash. These are the defining sounds of current heavy music partly because they are quite so angry. With horror films (Death), Lord of the Rings (Black) and flying wizards (Power) being far more popular subject matters offered in their respective subgenres, anger is not quite as popular in heavy music as you might reasonably expect. Until where we are now.
And still, for all of the polemical bands, with their shouting and their unity, Black Metal is as vibrant as ever; Death Metal is an all-conquering beast; Metalcore is the lingua franca of all heavy schemes. Regardless of fashion, heavy music develops and progresses; we wait for the rest of you to join in.