It's a great time for metal right now--depending on whom you talk to. A bunch of ogling fair-weather fans have crashed the funeral procession that devoted metal heads have kept going strong for years, without feature stories in Spin, thank you very much. The more metal, the better--but the world of metal is dark and unwelcoming by nature. Merely listening to metal does not make you hip. You have to get it, and not everyone does.
Once primarily the province of fringe deviants and long-in-the-jagged-tooth men and women with graying power mullets, metal is in the throes of a hearty underground renaissance. The best metal of now is vital and sincere, fueled by a potent mix of deft shredding, musical innovation and a fierce nostalgia for simpler times when men shamelessly wore leather pants and allowance money funded the purchase of cassingles at the drugstore.
But what do I know? I don't listen to metal, and I never really have. Did that keep me from dressing up like a Viking on Halloween and attending a show by the Columbus, Ohio, band Teeth of the Hydra, whose new album, Greenland, wields an obvious Nordic slant? Oh no, it does not, and no one at the club gave me any grief for it.
There was a disappointing dearth of obvious metalheads in the crowd--probably not unusual, considering that this was a CMJ Music Marathon event--although a chain-belted example of what I've heard called a "heshbag woman" accosted the right horn of my Viking helmet with a Sharpie, inscribing, "Suck the left one."
But does one need to look metal in order to be metal? A lot of the press devoted to the current coolness of metal alludes to the disingenuousness of it, as if metal were a bandwagon for bored thirty-something musicians to hop onto for wink-wink kicks. Metal is not a curio to be collected and displayed on a shelf of ironic delights, and fed-up critics roll their eyes at poseurs who maybe have a few Yngwie Malmsteen tracks on their mp3 player and call it a day. Metal, the music of outsiders, does not welcome day-trippers.
And yet the cerebral side of metal has never been so accessible. Bands like Mastodon, Pelican, Priestess and High on Fire value melody over hypermasculine showmanship, and for those who don't respond to growling vocals and constant lyrical nods to the pain, suffering and the Grim Reaper, it's a great time to check out up-and-coming, metal-lovin' bands.
Metal has survived because of its adaptability. Its purity of intention--be loud, be angry, be drunk, get laid--remains the same. But its means of expression are elastic enough to encompass the most disparate subgenres: black metal, adventure metal, speed metal, hair metal, butt-rock and nu metal. Your average Hatebreed fan does not have much in common with the typical Whitesnake fan other than steadfastness--lovers of metal are faithful for life.
That's why diehards clung tighter and tighter during the lean years after metal's height of popularity in the mid-1980s. Though not particularly visible, they continued to gather at clubs and amphitheaters across the country to worship under the flowing tresses of their gods. In his 2004 book Too Fast for Love: Heavy Metal Portraits, photographer David Yellen presented these fans as an endangered species, his eager groupies and heavily tattooed, frizzy-haired men confronting the camera in a dare: Go ahead, make fun of me--I don't give a shit. But some of his subjects betrayed a melancholy resignation in their eyes, as if they knew their glory days had passed, leaving them with nothing but the bizarre ritual of pilgrimages to Poison package tours to bring back to life the days captured in Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
The grandest thing about metal is its permanence. Its presence on the developed world's cultural radar might ebb and flow, but as long as the sun rises and sets, you will find disaffected, pimply longhaired kids skulking around in ripped-up Levis and AC/DC T-shirts. Fashions change, but just like hippies, goth kids and punk rockers, the stalwart metal archetype soldiers on. Metal is for anyone who needs it and means it, and that includes slick urban dwellers in $300 jeans, awkward teens growing up on a farm in rural Iowa and 45-year-olds with office jobs, growing kids and beautiful metal memories of yore.