Op Ed: Is Metal Dead?
It’s been a while since we’ve had either a Think Tank post or a Music as a System post. Really, that was due to me lacking time/motivation to seek out interesting discussion topics. However, over the past few days I’ve found myself in a philosophical conversation with one of my friends (and a sometimes reader of ToH) regarding the life cycle of art. As some of you may have seen, this friend recently asserted that we are living in a post-metal (and really post-art) state. This comment, and the blogs and theories behind it, would seem to imply that metal is dead. But is it really? That’s the question that I want you to ponder as I lay out my arguments. In the grand tradition of Washington Think tank, I’m going to return to this question at the end and pose an even further one for you to answer. If metal isn’t dead, what’s next?
The basis for our friend’s assertion that metal is dead is derived from a theory known as the “The End of Art.” This theory, espoused by Arthur Danto in the 1960s after he visited an Andy Warhol exhibit, essentially states that modern (or post-modern) art has reached a state of self-awareness wherein art itself no longer imitates life. This leads to art essentially evolving into a purely theoretical system, with art itself as a means of creation and examination of life coming to an end. Danto was not implying that new art cannot be created, but he was essentially claiming that art, as it has existed for the entirety of human history, has reached its logical and necessary culmination. As with most complex theories that one may attempt to summarize into a short paragraph, I’m certain I’ve been negligent on relaying some of the finer details of the criticism, so if you’d like to know more, I recommend you read this entire article. However, I do feel that I have covered the End of Art theory enough to move onto the actual blog post that acts as the object for this post.
Before you go any further, I suggest you read this article.
Fellow blogger and armchair metal critic Helm announces his intentions with gusto by launching a vicious salvo right at the beginning of his article. “What’s heavy metal still around for?” he asks. He then proceeds to answer his own question by stating that essentially metal has become a safe haven for angsty adults to relive the glory days of their teenage years. According to Helm, metal in the modern era is simply a weak facsimile of the vital, unpredictable 80s and 90s. All bands, in his opinion, exist to reproduce classic albums ad nauseam in order for us to forget the shortcomings of our youth and to thrive on a nostalgic high.
What a load of crap.
This article is a disingenuous, contrived straw man argument that, oddly enough, lacks any sense of self-awareness. Beneath all the clever metaphors and five-dollar vocabulary, all you’ll really find is an almost sickeningly reductionist and narrow-minded perspective. Helm seems unable to differentiate why HE used to enjoy metal from what’s actually going on in the scene.
But, in the spirit of intellectual discourse I’d first like to acknowledge two things that Helm does get right. First, he is correct that much of mainstream metal is little more than a celebration of historical success. Bands like Avenged Sevenfold have in many ways built a career upon emulating their predecessors. Second, if you take a look at any particular sub-genre in heavy metal, you’ll find bloat. An immense amount of it, to be exact. The majority of new bands in any one scene seem to be continually putting out only slight variations of albums released decades before. In fact, some micro-genres (like war metal) are so insular that any band that deviates too far from the formula is no longer considered part of the scene.
And that’s okay. What Helm doesn’t understand is that this is how music, art, technology, science, etc. progress. This is the process of “normal science” or, in musical terms, normal evolution that holds the line, so to speak, until a new paradigm erupts onto the scene. Interestingly in metal, we’ve seen quite a few of these supposed paradigm shifts. Helm’s overly revisionist version of metal history conveniently overlooks that it hasn’t been very long since the latest paradigm shift in metal. Like it or not, extended range guitars opened up a new rhythmic chapter in metal in the form of djent. Prior to that, the latent influence of melodic death metal germinated around the turn of the century into metalcore. Even further back you have nu metal. Maybe Helm just doesn’t like these genres and thus overlooked them? I’m not sure, but regardless of how you feel about those new genres, you cannot deny that each changed the landscape in heavy music. We may even be in the throes of a brand new paradigm in the form of blackgaze, although several bands playing that style have existed for quite some time. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see where this one goes. It would, however, seem that metal does actually have the tools to grow and evolve after all.
Perhaps an even bigger problem with this thought process though is that it is absurdly reductionist. We should be careful not to confuse a lack of interest in what the majority of metal bands are doing with a dearth of challenging, creative, and thoughtful metal. Yes, there are bands out there pushing the envelope – we interview and write about them every day. Not every band is trying to sound like Death or Dissection. To find these bands, though, we must look beyond the stagnant mainstream into the underground, but the underground is and always has been the dynamic environment where new paradigms are birthed. I’m not as concerned with the mainstream. That’s where the normal science takes place, and it serves to keep the entire system afloat. It’s totally okay for individuals to enjoy more mainstream bands if they like them; taste is subjective and all, but let’s not pretend that the mainstream is all there is.
The underground, though, is where new ideas are espoused and assimilated, and thanks to the information superhighway, new bands dabbling in new ideas are merely a few clicks away. Interestingly, the mere existence of some of these bands does seem to indicate that End of Art theory is incorrect. Musicians like Jared Moran seem to actually be aware of metal’s shortcomings, but rather than whining about it online are genuinely attempting to create something new that moves the ball forward. On that note, if End of Art theory claims that self-awareness ultimately kills art, wouldn’t Helm’s argument then be too dissonant with that theory? Isn’t he ostensibly claiming that metalheads, in seeking to preserve the inner children, utterly lack any self-awareness? Strange.
The ouroboros has come full circle, and I want to know what’s next. In my humble opinion, I genuinely think the next paradigm shift in metal is the one-man-band (ignoring the potential blackgaze paradigm since that still isn’t truly new but is rather gaining popularity). Why? Because never before has technology and information been so cheap and abundant. True, one-man bands have been around almost as long as metal itself. Many of the early purveyors of black metal wrote and recorded material as solo artists. However, the true advent I foresee is the one-man band that is wholly integrated with technology and uses that technology in revolutionary ways. Artists can just as easily write and record new, challenging music in their down-time as any band could in the 80s. In fact, it seems to me that the diminished record sale trends would actually demotivate big, genre-chasing bands from pursuing the art, leaving hard working and intelligent young men and women to experiment with the limits of what we consider metal. As the singularity approaches, I genuinely believe we’ll see more and more genre-pressing bands like vod, Jute Gyte, and Umbah. A future where man and machine become ever more integrated belongs to minds such as these. Ultimately, though, I can only imagine what the future may hold. It is beyond my hands as to whether or not a true paradigm shift occurs. Alas, the future is most easily predicted by those who create it, and I am but a humble critic and not a creator. What do you think the future holds?
So, to answer the question I posed in the title, no, I do not think metal is dead. I believe metal is alive both in the hearts of those who enjoy mainstream bands who only add minor changes to the tried and true wheel and of those who seek innovative and compelling new sounds. Both are valid, and neither should be written off as a mere celebration of adolescence.
You can’t stop progress.