Headbangers Brawl: A metal renaissance, or just hipster metal?

Posted by on February 16, 2015

As just about anyone who’s read about music on the Internet knows, websites and publications (ourselves included!) love doing end-of-year top album lists. And while there tend to be certain touch points of universal acclaim – if you wrote a top 10 metal albums list for 2014, either At The Gates, Pallbearer or both were probably on it – these lists tend to bear their writers out as general metal and rock fans, alternative fans who are also casual-to-serious metal and punk fans, or underground metalheads. But it’s that growing middle group that’s most confusing to us, and nowhere is it more perfectly exemplified than Consequence of Sound’s much-shared top 20 most anticipated metal albums of 2015, which proudly declares a convergence of fandoms by saying, “Metal and heavy music are experiencing a renaissance.”

Here, familiar names like Metallica, Deftones and Faith No More rub elbows with upstart releases on The Flenser, Northern Silence and Ridingeasy Records; you’ll not find anything from Century Media, Metal Blade, Roadrunner or Spinefarm on this list, and the only Nuclear Blast record you’ll find is Enslaved. Is the metal world as we know it disrespected by so-called “hipster metal” writers for alternative-focused sites, or is something exciting happening within the indie rock world that could change heavy music for the better?


Kodi: This is something I’ve found myself thinking about a lot over the last few years, as the list of metal records I should be listening to changes dramatically if I’m reading about metal on a metal site, versus if I’m reading about metal on a mainstream/indie/alternative music site. In some ways, that’s kind of awesome. If you were a metal-friendly writer for a not-metal site in 2012, for example, you were probably all over Pallbearer’s debut album, and that attention created a massive amount of support for a band that quite a lot of the traditional metal community didn’t even have on its radar yet. The issue comes up when a band like Deafheaven turns up on every year-end list possible at the expense of metal stalwarts like Carcass who made massive comebacks in the same year – all of a sudden, metal fans feel slighted and want to call Deafheaven and its fans out as posers, despite massively positive attention from metal press months before.


To me, that thinking is way too reactionary – if indie fans love a metal band, why not talk to them about it and find out if they would dig, say, Devin Townsend or Gorguts or even a more populist band like Killswitch Engage? Then maybe they’ll enjoy the music I like more, and that’s good for everyone, right? So I’ve spent time asking people from this side what they’re excited for in metal and why, and they all seem to have an amazing knack for finding bands like King Woman and Ghost Bath that are now on that Consequence of Sound list. They usually have roots more steadfastly in punk than in traditional metal, but they’re drawn to the extremity and ingenuity of a great metal record; it’s just that the places they go looking for metal to listen to are often different from us. They value the esoteric and disorienting stuff most (hard not to find Pentagram fans and grindcore fans among them), while more melodic metal and anything crossing over to rock radio feels uninteresting to them and goes unnoticed. Does that mean they’ll overlook bigger European labels and majors to a fault, trying so hard to avoid a Nightwish or a Trivium that they miss the bigger picture? Probably, but in the same way, a traditionalist is equally likely to overlook bands putting out great music that they close off to themselves as “hipster.” The template for what a “hipster” even is has been dead for a couple of years now as indie rock has shed its old-school fears of licensing dollars and corporate interest, and while it’s fine to be protective of metal as a culture and as a genre, there’s a lot to learn from the fans getting here now who are thirsty for new music they aren’t hearing anywhere else. In most cases, they want to learn from us, too.


Chris: I’ve been waiting for (dreading?) the day that this debate came up, because I knew it was coming at the end of 2013. The moment that a friend of mine, who normally listens to Sublime and other ska-type bands, told me that Deafheaven was one of his favorite albums of that year, I knew we were due for this discussion. The convergence of styles that is so widespread now is certainly not new – Devin Townsend has been doing it in his music for over a decade, and Opeth has been working it slowly into their music since Damnation. But the moment Deafheaven simultaneously became the most hyped-up and most reviled band in heavy music in 2013, I knew that we’d hit the tipping point, and discussions like this were going to start happening a lot more.

First of all, let’s avoid the use of the word “hipster” altogether as a way to describe the people listening to this type of music, because the term has taken on such a negative connotation in common parlance in recent years. I’d be more inclined to just refer to this type of music as exactly what it is – indie metal. In much the same way that indie rock grew and developed into its own style and genre over the years, indie metal is now experiencing its first growing pains as it struggles to define itself apart from its more well-seasoned variants. There are bands like Deafheaven that are riding the wave of indie metal as full participants, and there are other artists like Enslaved and Ihsahn that are straddling the line between their well-practiced metal roots and the attractive unknown of indie metal. It’s an exciting time if you’re a fan of indie metal, but it’s a scary time if you don’t find any attraction in indie metal, because you’re left wondering if one of your longtime favorites is going to abandon their style in favor of delving into indie metal, all in the name of “artistic growth”.

Personally, I am not sure where I stand on this debate at this time. My metal background is firmly rooted in my time at WSOU, and if there’s one thing I learned there, it’s that metal is a brotherhood that is (for the most part) unifying and unbreakable. Indie metal is causing much of the metal community to spit in the face of that notion, because they feel it is their duty to belittle the “posers” that would try to stand with the veterans. I agree with Kodi that such thinking is way too reactionary, but at the same time, I don’t know how bands like Deafheaven or Wolves in the Throne Room could be regularly played on the radio or in a digital playlist alongside Iron Maiden, At the Gates, or Killswitch Engage. The conceptual realms from which those styles arise are very far apart, at first glance. While I don’t think it’s impossible for metal fans to find the ability to like both indie metal and traditional metal, I do think that most listeners will come down as liking one and not the other.


If that does end up being the case, then the traditional metal community needs to live and let live with the indie metal community, and vice versa. At the end of the day, both styles of music are perfectly valid expressions of artistry. Whether or not it’s a “renaissance” is up for debate, but it’s not bad to see the metal world getting shaken up by this development. Although I don’t necessarily like indie metal, I think that all artists, both old and new, should be given the chance to expand their borders and try new things. Similarly, metal fans should be allowed to let their tastes grow and evolve beyond what they might be used to. If a band like Fallujah that is more ambient rock than death metal can come along and knock my socks off in the way that they did, then every other metal fan out there deserves to have a similar experience with a band that is outside of their comfort zone. If that band is Deafheaven or another similar artist, so be it. Who am I to judge? In the end, as long as it’s not getting played alongside Taylor Swift, you’re doing okay in my book.


Nick: Ultimately, as a person who just “likes what I like,” I’ve spent time before that being concerned about this kind of thing. What’s “cred,” what’s hip, what’s this and that, and it ultimately becomes an exertion of effort around music rather than having anything to do with the music directly. It’s all about who likes the most obtuse, overly-intellectual stuff and who can best articulate it in so much wasted liberal arts degree prose. I can’t even tell you how many reviews I’ve read on “hip” sites regarding metal records where, if I didn’t already know the band, I couldn’t tell you a goddamned thing about what genre of music the band even plays.

This list is great because it totally disregards that to the point of normalizing it, at least in my eyes. As a metal fan with a good understanding of what happens in the underground, am I allowed to like Monolord while in the same breath be excited for Faith No More’s new record? Or hell, Metallica for that matter? Yes, because to my ear all of which are interesting musically. It’s the kind of mentality that develops in tight-knit punk scenes in a region, for example, about what’s “real punk” or whatever trash gets spewed about that kind of thing. Metal is the same way: if it doesn’t sound like Transylvanian Hunger or Ride the Lightning-era Metallica, the so-called hipsters want nothing to do with it. If it’s too heady, purists are crying posers.

I normally have more to say, and in a more focused stream of consciousness, but what I’m basically trying to say is this: Like what you like, enjoy anything that stimulates you musically, whether it’s hip, or anything else. If that’s metal, or punk, or Top 40 for all I care – ultimately we’re all in this for the same reason: because music makes us happy. Fuck what’s cool, fuck worrying about being a poser, because liking a band isn’t some exclusive club. Music is for everyone, and In 2015, you’re all fake punks anyway.


Bram:  I’m not going to add anything here that hasn’t already been said. Things have changed drastically since when I first started developing my taste in metal. There was  pretty much radio, magazines like Rip, and once a week, Headbangers Balll, and that was it. My family didn’t even have cable until I was in my 20’s, so I learned about metal mainly word of mouth and tape trading that got me into the music I was into. Now you can listen to an artist’s entire discography, read interviews with every band member and see entire concerts from a band you’re interested in in an afternoon. It’s almost too much, but it separates the good bands from bad, and you’re not wasting $15 bucks on a CD that only had one or two songs on it.

I applaud the Pitchforks and Consequence of Sounds of the world, since they assume the readers are already familiar with the more popular, mainstream metal and have moved past it. That being said, I still like some mainstream stuff and find it silly that some of the more underground/indie/hipster metal outlets can’t celebrate a truly catchy mainstream metal band every now and then. There’s a hint of elitism, but if you’re truly into music that’s underground, you’ll be reading those sites anyway. Ultimately, I want to know what these sites have to say about a record. If it strikes a chord with me, I’ll want to listen. And if enough sites are heaping praise on an album, I’ll listen to it regardless. That goes the same way for a Revolver however, even if I’m not interested in the majority of super mainstream stuff. Either way, good metal is good metal, and there are some albums that will probably be viewed as classics years from now that Pitchfork and Revolver alike won’t have written about because they don’t fit into the defined are of what they cover.


Matt Albers: The music angle of this discussion has already been well documented, and quite articulately to say the least. I’m less concerned about the music side of this topic as I am with its cultural implications within the spectrum of fans, metal and otherwise, as they inevitably clash and collide. The idea of “indie metal” is nothing new to me. I remember my initial exposure to all of the multifaceted – and clearly, ever-expanding – subgenres and classifications of metal music when I started in college radio. There were experimental bands on the technical or hardcore sides like Tub Ring and The Number Twelve Looks Like You, coupled with the stoner sludge of Kylesa and Baroness (some of which have recently been classified into the idea of “girlfriend metal” – talk about new possible listener and fan exposure, but still with its own criticism).

In the social or community spectrum, any personal, individual, or group labels – be they “hipster,” “metalhead,” “poser,” “elitist,” or what have you – have certain connotations and definitions just as unique and original as the words themselves. And part of those differences is also the norms and attitudes you may or may not see or experience often, which can become stereotypes. These can be met with any kind of reaction, but commonly annoyance even from a minority, no matter how vocal. It’s natural for outsiders to point out the one asshole that ruins something for everyone, and assume they’re the perfect representation of what a group ACTUALLY is. We’re already well familiar with those tropes within the metal spectrum, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t seen metal fans using the same jargon we’ve come to expect from the “hipster/indie/ironic” crowds, to the point of humor, parody, or ridicule. After Killswitch Engage guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz won The Price Is Right just this past week, I read several social media posts along the lines of, “Killswitch Engage is trending; what is this, 2004? LOL.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like a hipster joke waiting to happen.

Maybe a post like that was actually a joke making fun of hipsters, and you could argue that historically, the culture among metalheads were the “ironic hipsters” of their day, thereby making metalheads the original hipsters before made being an ironic hipster “cool,” but I digress. Like Chris said, we’re seeing those “growing pains” as the music and its followers continue to grow and expand. Bands of the modern progressive metal movement like Mastodon, Between The Buried And Me, and Opeth have been seeing a diverse fan base for years now. It will be interesting to see how these different styles of music and their followings interact with one another, especially if different bands across this spectrum tour or play gigs together. I’m reminded of an interview I conducted with Craig Locicero of Forbidden back in 2011 for my Master’s Thesis on heavy metal music, culture, history, and relationships with media formats. On the topic of diversity in metal and lyrics in general he said something along the lines of, “Of course I’d love all of us to get along and be singing ‘Kumbaya’ hand-in-hand. But until then, what’s the point if the music doesn’t kick ass? If it’s metal, it’s got to be ‘Fuck you.'”

I think that about sums it up and breaks it all down perfectly. Just as there’s always going to be differences in musical styles and those that follow them, there will also be plenty of similarities and parallels that you can draw within the different subgenres and classifications. It’s fun and important to be who you are, and if you’re a metalhead, to embrace that part of you and wear the badge on your sleeve in the form of a patch on your vest. But no matter who you are, pride and hubris will always get in the way of progress and opportunity. So, hipsters, metalheads, punks, hardcore kids, and everyone else in between; before you judge, bitch, and moan, try stepping down off of your high horse for a second, give something new a try, and THEN decide whether or not it’s truly garbage. And if you like it, why be ashamed and try to hide it? We’re all different and life’s too short anyway. Insert other clichéd blah-blah-blah about peace, harmony, and “can’t we all just get along?” here.

Matthew Brown: So much has been said already, but I’ll hand over my two cents by simply stating that music is always evolving, and metal is no exception. I’m not really worried about where it’s going because I’m just glad it is going somewhere. And if that somewhere involves “hipsters” talking about how they adore Deafheaven as well as similar bands, then awesome! Anytime I can talk to someone about metal is a good time even if the band is one often derided like Avenged Sevenfold. The slightest hint that I can discuss my musical taste with someone is what gets me excited, whether that person mainly listens to hip hop, dubstep, or any other genre distant from metal. If I talk someone into listening to a new band or vice versa, then that’s a good day in my book. I don’t care if they aren’t a full on metalhead or even if they think the rest of metal is stupid.

When I go to my day job and pick music to blast over the speakers to a mix of people, I don’t except all of them to like it. Sometimes I don’t expect them to like it at all. But when a guy who normally hates metal comes up to tell me that he’s really digging Between The Buried And Me, I become so giddy that my clothes morph into a school girl outfit. And I don’t care if he doesn’t explore any other metal band after that because there’s still a link there, something we can go back and dig into the next time I get to play music at work.

Looking at the lists from sites like Consequence of Sound just gets me excited knowing there is a vast wealth of metal headed our way. Maybe I’ll love some of the records, maybe I won’t. I’ll call something a masterpiece, someone will think it’s just okay. I’ll call it overrated, someone will call it overlooked. A year later I’ll come around to a record and play down another. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about metal, where it’s going, and what people are taking from it. That’s what’s important.


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Categorised in: Columns, Headbangers Brawl