What can the changing palette of metal as a genre tell us about the shifting priorities of those who make more extreme music?
Metal, as a genre, used to be overwhelmingly black. The perception, often perpetuated by metal bands and fans, has been of an aggressive, male-dominated world fixated on darkness and death. With the recent release of Deftones’ latest album Gore, many within the metal community are likely to take issue with the more textured post-rock elements and lush cover art cluttered with airborne flamingos. But why will this bring on the backlash?
Even as this album seems set to garner the perennially unfashionable Sacramento band their share of plaudits – including their first Pitchfork review since the scathing notice dealt to their ill-fated self-titled fourth record in 2003 – there will be plenty who begrudge the incorporation of other more popular and palatable styles.
Put simply, Deftones will be deemed as just not ‘metal’ enough. Their songs contrast powerful, densely packed guitar attacks with spacier, more atmospheric passages and crooned vocals. These concessions to aural prettiness and experiments with an expanding palette could even, on balance, lose them fans – at least for the time being. The aforementioned review enthuses over their sound as ‘a smear of pink, purple and black, a kiss that bites down on your lip to draw blood’. A sensuous balance of brutality and beauty.
The mention of pink here is surely intended to evoke the furore around the most successful band to achieve cross-over success beyond the bounds of traditional metal fans: Deafheaven.
The artwork for Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather was itself a daring move. Bereft of skulls, corpses, or any of the recognisable iconography of metal – and in particular of black metal – the sleeve was instead flushed with a peachy pink and overlaid with discrete serif lettering. In aural terms, detractors were appalled by the band’s evolving fusion of black metal’s most notable conventions (including blast-beats and screamed vocals) with post-rock guitar lines, shoegaze-y levels of reverb, and a payload of layered sound effects.
The online reaction was one of vitriolic opposition. Message boards were alight with denunciations of Deafheaven as fakers and imposters. Pictures appeared of furious listeners motioning to flush their copies of Sunbather down the toilet. Frontman George Clarke, on account of his clean-cut handsomeness, was effectively accused of being an undercover Abercrombie and Fitch model. Where was the long hair and corpse paint?
Guitarist Kerry McCoy addressed these criticisms in his appearance on the Guitar Power series hosted by Matt Sweeney. McCoy seems an affable and generous chap who places less emphasis on showy technical playing and more on thinking compositionally by layering simple ideas. He seems to want to make metal more accessible to would-be players rather than intimidating and impenetrable. When talking about why Deafheaven are often perceived as not looking or acting like a metal band, he reminds the audience, “It’s OK to like this music and be a normal guy and love your mother.”
Deafheaven haven’t reinvented wheel sonically and are certainly not the only metal band to have decisively incorporated influences from other genres and aesthetics. Nevertheless, the cover artwork for Sunbather seems to have been a knowingly provocative, countercultural statement in the world of metal. With the artwork and promotional materials for Gore Deftones seem to be attempting something similar.
Perhaps there has been a shift in terms of what motivates those who make extreme music. Metal is often challenging and confrontational, but what is being confronted? Back in the 1980s the band who would become the genre’s most popular and influential band, Metallica, were railing against the gaudy good-time excesses of so-called hair metal. With their first two long-players, Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning, they set the template for hundreds of acts that followed. They played hard and fast, and lyrically dwelt on such subjects as death, devilry, capital punishment and apocalypse. Much the same, in many respects, as Black Sabbath – yet blacker still.
Metallica’s music and whole style of performance and presentation was meant to be a reality check; corruption and hate is widespread and collective destruction is inevitable. But thirty years later, there is quite the widespread cultural acceptance of doom-and-gloom and reasons to be cynical are all too easy to find. Rolling news and trending articles contribute to an over-saturated awareness of hypocrisy and tragic injustice.
So how have some bands including Deafheaven reacted? By finding light in the darkness and breaking it into luminous new shades. Metal’s familiar lyrical subjects are given a more personal inflection and the unrestricted sonic palette produces a layered, ecstatic confusion; a cathartic and bittersweet explosion of everyday emotions up to a dizzyingly level of grandeur. Not simply self-denying or self-mutilating, metal is forging ahead by offering a new reality check: no matter how painful life can sometimes be, there is beauty to be found in unexpected places. Ω