I thought I’d ease into the New Year by sharing a couple of links to recent pieces on the current state of metal, and its subculture, that I found interesting and thought-provoking. Without further ado, here they are, along with some short discussions of my main takeaway from each piece.
Deconstructing: Alcest’s Shelter And Metal In A Post-Deafheaven World by Michael Nelson at Stereogum
I appreciate that many readers are probably sick of reading about Deafheaven, Alcest, and the wider blackgaze trend, at this stage. But there’s a lot of good points in this article about the place of those bands within the context of black metal history, as well as the self-reflective tendency of metal, especially black metal. It also finds room to consider the difficulties of effectively marketing bands like Alcest, who have historical ties to metal culture but don’t really exhibit those influences in their sound any more. That association with metal can place bands in a kind of limbo, where mainstream publications group them with “extreme”-sounding bands (if they even pay attention to them at all), limiting their exposure to non-metal fans who might appreciate their sound in of itself. Heavy metal review outlets are then left to pick up the slack, discussing something that falls outside their usual sonic parameters.
Of course, this situation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or destined to limit bands’ success and exposure. Deafheaven, after all, were the crossover hit of 2013, with rapturous mainstream attention for Sunbather and review scores averaging higher than any of the year’s other big-name, big-hype releases. It might be that this represents a watershed moment, where metal-inspired music reaches new heights of critical approval and wide exposure. In any case, it seems likely that 2013 was the year things changed for extreme music. I can’t wait to see how things develop in the coming months.
The Best Metal Albums of 2013: Introduction by Adrian Bergland at Basement Galaxy
This piece, quoted in the Stereogum article above, similarly approaches 2013 as a watershed moment, though Bergland is somewhat more equivocal than Nelson in his opinion on the state of metal. I disagree with a number of his positions, not least his critical stance on Deafheaven and the idea that the necessary quality of metal’s sound is “power”, rather than extremity. (Regardless of one’s opinion on Sunbather, it is absolutely an “extreme” album in its sonic contrasts and the emotional heights it reaches. Whether this makes it metal is of course another story.)
But Bergland’s contention that metal has, on the whole, ceased to really innovate as a genre is certainly one I can broadly agree to. In a simile I feel is cannily accurate, he states that metal today is essentially “a musical genre like the blues, like country, one that has a good niche set for itself and is still capable of thrilling music, but is essentially a relic. There is plenty of creativity on display within the confines of those genre boundaries, but the days of true innovation, recordings that irrevocably alter the genre, seem over.” This informs his opinion of Sunbather as the album where “extreme music” severs any ties from metal genre signifiers, frees itself to explore uncharted territory. Of course, this lack of real innovation doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy metal any more. It’s just that we might have to stop expecting a game-changing new direction from music operating primarily within the heavy metal genre, and simply enjoy the product that continues to be made for what it is- variations on a well-established theme.
Metallic Grotesquerie: Sequel Interstitial (Between-quel?) by Bayou Horns at Post-Zeitgeist
Anyone who’s read my series of articles on metal, patriarchy, misogyny and other related themes knows that I owe a great deal to the Post-Zeitgeist blog. Its author Bayou Horns consistently approaches the genre with an in-depth, critical eye and in the process illuminates aspects of it that might not be immediately obvious. In particular, previous posts at the site dealing with metal’s relationship with shock and misogyny have been invaluable to my own work here at shamelessnavelgazing.
Post-Zeitgeist had unfortunately been quiet in recent months, owing to its author’s external commitments, but this piece from late November picks up pretty much where earlier discussions of grotesquerie and misogyny in metal had left off. Bayou Horns takes as his starting point the posting of a particularly grotesque album cover on the MetalSucks site, and its subsequent criticism and defence in the comments section. This allows for a deconstruction of the various arguments you often hear in defence of such artwork from metalheads (“Freedom of speech!” “Satire/subversion!” “Genre trope!” ad nauseum), which are ultimately revealed as essentially hollow inanities. In their place, Bayou Horns offers a considered critique of the use of grotesquerie in metal, and how the subversive potential of these topics is often squandered by bands content to rehash once-shocking ideas and presentations. This isn’t exactly a new subject for the blog, but it’s always enlightening for me, at least, to read the site’s take on these subjects. I sincerely hope Bayou Horns can find the time and energy to update semi-regularly this year, and provide us all with more reflective, thought-provoking pieces such as this.
(These earlier Post-Zeitgeist pieces, which I have quoted in my previous work, may help add some helpful context to the most recent link. Death Metal: Grotesquerie, Fetish and Misogyny is the preceding article to the piece above; Extremity in Metal: a Buddhist’s Perspective sums up a lot of my feelings on the current limits of extreme metal, and how a considered, reflective approach could allow for this music to reach new heights.)