Heavy Metal

It’s alive and flourishing.

Let’s put some mettle in that metal

The longevity of heavy metal may not be news—spend enough time in any small town and you’ll spy some dude wearing a jean jacket held together by a gigantic Iron Maiden back patch—but it’s impressive. The ultra-resilient genre has weathered the rise of its more marketable sibling, grunge, as well as the hip-hop and hybrid offshoots that replace “heavy” with “nü” or “rap.” (The less said about funk metal the better.) Heavy metal has recently conquered a new frontier, making an unexpected crossover into the realm of hipsterdom. That’s right, time to grow out your hair, Carlos D.

Anecdotal evidence abounds: A trip to the local coffee shop finds TV on the Radio replaced by High on Fire. At a pause during a Mountain Goats set, John Darnielle requested that his lo-fi minions check out the Atlanta metal quartet Mastodon, even if it meant quitting their jobs. Jimmy Duff left behind Bellevue Bar, Hell’s Kitchen’s famed heavy-metal watering hole, to open a new metal bar called Duff’s on the Williamsburg, N.Y., waterfront, coffin and all. Black Sabbath tees remain a common fashion statement for folks who only know Ozzy as the burnt dad on MTV. True, these gestures could be written off as empty statements, no more than a condescending flirtation, a little irony that goes down easy with PBR. But really, I don’t think so.

The current revival seems to be a natural mutation from the hipster fascination with post-punk, noise, and no wave. A couple of years ago, the resurgence of ‘70s and early-’80s downtown noise and guitar angularity infused grit into the gene pool, allowing even the nerdiest indie kids to dip their toes into jagged, autistic sounds. Accordingly, when extreme groups like Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes emerged out of nowhere (OK, Providence, R.I., and Ann Arbor, Mich., respectively) and began drawing critical attention (in the case of the latter, signing to Sub Pop), one byproduct was the investigation of a musical culture that many had previously feared or fetishized from afar.

Keep in mind, too, that the metal under discussion is not the cheese of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, nor does it fall at the most extreme blood-and-guts end of the spectrum. Carl Schultz, a publicist at the metal-ready Relapse Records, points out that while much of this music “is loud and aggressive, the actual song structures are based in rock.” He adds, “AC/DC could be considered both metal and hard rock as well, you know?” Yes, I do. Stephen O’Malley, one half of the pre-eminent drone/doom-metal band Sunn 0))), was more skeptical of announcing a bona fide crossover. He suggested that metal’s appeal results from the “broader palettes” of the musicians forging this music.

O’Malley may be onto something. These bands are certainly more expansive and astute than, say, the whammy-bar-obsessed crews those acid freaks in high school put together after discovering Guns N’ Roses. Indeed, groups like Sunn 0))), Asva, Noxagt, and Orthrelm could pass for avant-garde. Sunn 0)))—“The 0)))’s silent,” says band member Greg Anderson. “It’s the symbol of the amplifier representing a sound wave”—locates a low-frequency drone and sticks to it until bowels are broken. The band also dresses in monkish robes for their live sets, and recently, they recorded a song with black-metal vocalist Malefic (of Xasthur) while the singer was in a coffin inside a hearse. To some, this may sound like an outtake from This Is Spinal Tap, but Sunn 0)))’s O’Malley is a well-regarded graphic designer who recently scored an installation by visual artist Banks Violette at Barbara Gladstone Gallery; cites Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as a fave; and his Web site showcases a wide-ranging intellect that spans global politics, H.P. Lovecraft, underground art, and Richard Serra.

The popularity of heavy metal also rests upon the undeniable appeal of a well-written anthem. A great current practitioner of the form is Matt Pike, the guitarist and vocalist of stoner-rock kingpins High on Fire. He writes songs that incorporate high-octane psychedelic lyrics with stadium-sized choruses and acoustic/electric intermingling. On the trio’s newest album, Blessed Black Wings, he spins yarns about sons of thunder and fantastical battles while dropping tunes tagged “Devilution” and “Cometh Down Hessian.” Recorded by producer Steve Albini, the sound is meticulously plotted.

The surest crossover of the new breed of metal heads is Mastodon. They’ve already signed to a major label, and they appear to be the Second Coming of a young, hungry, pre-pompous, group-therapeutic Metallica. Their newest album, Leviathan, fixates on Moby Dick, Thomas Hobbes, and the Elephant Man. So, uh, why’s John Darnielle name-dropping them at his shows? Mastodon’s blend of Melville and pure ‘90s metal offers the crème de la crème of literary metal. The band reminds oldsters why they were tantalized by yowling solos in their younger days, yet their lyrics still remain grown-up and bookish enough not to chase those folks away. NPR analysis aside, Mastodon’s songs alternate between two vocalists’ gruff and majestic howls and huge double bass drumming. Really, who could resist?

In the end, this brief overview is but the iceberg’s tip: What about the brilliant French group Deathspell Omega? That certain Nick Drake-quoting Japanese trio named Boris? The gorgeous one-man Californian black metal of Leviathan? Opeth? Dillinger Escape Plan? Converge or Neurosis? Big Business and their stripped-down Judas Priest amphetamines? Isis’ lovely Foucault-inspired shoe-gazing? Plain old Arsis? Many of my friends worship the South Carolina quartet Nile, who delve into Egyptology and boast song titles worthy of McSweeney’s (e.g. “Chapter of Obeisance Before Giving Breath to the Inert One in the Presence of the Crescent Shaped Horns”). 

Well, regardless of whom I left out and the inchoate reasons behind metal’s sudden respectability, we know that hipsters are a fickle bunch. What’s more important than an unexpected audience for metal is how these various underground groups are creating vibrant, smart sounds sans Viking tropes. Well, actually, if you do dig Vikings, check out the Norwegian crew Enslaved, whose new album totally slays on the seafaring tip. And they’re much more believable than the Decemberists.

Audio excerpts from: Head for the Shallow © 2005 Hydra Head; Blessed Black Wings © 2005 Relapse Records; Futurists Against the Ocean © 2005 Mimicry Records; Leviathan © 2004 Relapse Records; OV © 2005 Ipecac Recordings; The Grimme Robe Demos © 2005 Southern Records. All rights reserved.