You know how it is these days. You post a perfectly innocent comment on a social network expressing an opinion or saying something that you think will strike a chord, only to have someone react viscerally and violently to offense taken that you never intended.
And so it went with a friend recently, when they posted on their Facebook wall following the announcement that Metallica were to headline the Saturday night of this year’s Glastonbury festival.
“But… Metallica aren’t very good…” he wrote.
Cue the flaming.
Comments started appearing one after the other, passionate but ill thought through and rather subjective: “Better than Oasis!” “I’d rather watch them than Kasabian!” “Metallica are right up there!” “Metallica put on a great show!”
What on earth does any of that mean? And does it really matter? Arguably not, and it’s the kind of comment thread that I wouldn’t usually bother with, except for the fact that said friend wrote a lengthy rant in return that I felt I couldn’t let go.
In it, he described Metallica – and Heavy Metal in general – as variously, “prohibitively awful,” “reliant on pyrotechnics, mini Stonehenges and strutting to make it palatable,” “…one half decent album from Oasis is better than Metallica’s two hits,” “inaccessibly aggressive and distorted,” “tuneless,” a genre that has “a stranglehold over the music industry” and one that is “…regressive” and “…ultimately signifies nothing.” His final sign off tipped me over the edge when he concluded that: “It’s gonna be embarrassing watching these sad old fuckers… and a waste of a slot, when there’s plenty of great acts out there who could put on a swell show without spoiling our brains.”
Don’t get me wrong, everyone is entitled to their opinion. You can like or loathe any bands you choose, and if you don’t like Metallica or heavy metal, that’s fine by me. I’ll disagree with you and discuss it with you and champion the cause, but it’s fine. Inaccurately malign a genre of music that I feel passionate about, and do it in an oversimplified and reductive manner however, and I’m going to respond.
Let’s take a moment to think about Metallica specifically.
Metallica have incorporated pyrotechnics and theatrics into their stage show during their career, it’s true, particularly as their popularity has grown and the venues that they play have increased in size. I remember seeing them at the NEC in October ’96 during their ‘Load’ tour where, amongst other things, roadies were “accidentally” engulfed in flames as lighting rigs “collapsed” around them. It added a visual and conceptual dimension to a show that might otherwise have lost some of it’s power in the cavernous environs of the NEC.
Metal Hammer’s Dom Lawson recently argued in The Observer that Metallica’s increasing reliance on concepts and theatrics is a result of their now vast wealth, artistic rut, and increasing distance from contemporary metal culture. There may be some truth in that, and even fans of the band have had their patience stretched by “events” such as the Some Kind Of Monster documentary. But we’re still a way off miniature Stonehenge, or volume controls that are “…one louder.”
Next up, a correction of simple factual inaccuracy. Metallica have actually notched up several “hit” singles and albums in the UK, if you take “hit” to mean volume of sales and resulting chart position. During their early 90’s peak popularity, their singles regularly reached as high as No.5 in the UK chart, and their albums No.1. You may not like that fact, but there it is. A fact. I’m sure Oasis have notched up many more “hits”, but for a niche genre of music, Metallica do just fine.
Yes, “Metallica are up there!” is about as vague and meaningless a statement as you could make. But what I think the commentee was getting at is, regardless of what you think of them now, Metallica were true thrash metal pioneers. Along with the likes of Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, they created, defined and helped popularise the genre. So whether you like the music or not, they are an important group in the history of hard rock and metal.
So, those points made and out of the way, on to matters of heavy metal in general.
A lot of heavy metal, and Metallica’s modern incarnation in particular, is, I would argue, very accessible. Much heavy metal music is hardly Zyklon-esque. It’s rhythmically dynamic, full of melody, and not always hard and fast. Many metal acts have plenty of well known and notable slower songs in their catalogues, all of which are at the far more accessible end of the metal genre. To characterise all metal as inaccessible and unlistenable is, frankly, just churlish.
Metal can be downtuned and distorted, too. But tuneless? A patently ridiculous claim. Agressive? Yes, but not always. Abrasive? Perhaps. But tuneless? Never. Whether the tune is shrouded in other sonic disguises or not, it’s still there. It may not be as obvious and glaring a tune as a Miley Cyrus “banger”, but to say metal doesn’t have tunes is just not true.
It also seems daft to me to suggest that hard rock and metal has some kind of stranglehold over the music industry, or is perceived as the only alternative to mainstream pop. In the late 80’s and early 90’s metal was a significant commercial force, sure. But today? It’s certainly more niche than most, and suffering from the same commercial pressures as other genres of music. You certainly won’t find much heavy metal on the mainstream airwaves or television channels, that’s for sure.
But I think that what stuck in my craw the most; what really irritated me above all else in this rant that was wrong on so many levels, was the claim that heavy metal means nothing.
At it’s best, and to a devoted audience, heavy metal means everything.
It’s synonymous with freedom; of speech, thought and expression. It has a long and colourful history of rebellion; not just for the sake of rebellion, but in word and action, speaking out against injustice on many different levels. Be that racism, sexism or the Armenian genocide, heavy metal has covered most topics in its time.
Metal is supportive of – and promotes – education, intelligence and critical thinking, in order that you might make the best of yourself as an individual, and help those in the world around you make the best of themselves, too. Witness the activism of Rage Against The Machine as just one excellent example.
For all it is seen as an aggressive form of music, the metal community is actually extremely tolerant and open-minded. For all the ‘hard’ nature of the sonics themselves, I have never met a more friendly, helpful, accepting or forward thinking group of people than heavy metal fans. Yes, like in any other walk of life, you get metal meatheads; people who distort or misconstrue or misrepresent the heavy metal philosophy. But on the whole, scratch beneath the surface and you find a remarkably thoughtful, insightful, aware and welcoming bunch. They may not share mainstream values, and they may fly their freak flag higher than most, but that doesn’t make them a lesser group of people, or one that are in any way regressive.
To continue a comparison between metal and britpop, Metallica and Oasis, might be a pointless exercise. Chalk, cheese and all that. But in my mind, to say that all heavy metal is just empty theatricality is akin to me saying that Oasis were just a couple of loud-mouth dickhead brothers, who cranked out jingoistic guitar anthems designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. There’s a minute shred of truth in the summary, but it’s far from the full picture.
Ultimately, I find the furore surrounding Metallica’s Glasto-Gate generally baffling. Perhaps the fact that our mainstream media outlets – and, if my friend is anything to go by, the wider public – find Metallica’s appearance at Glastonbury something to kick up such a stink about, is indicative of a general lack of tolerance, and fear of the unknown, still prevailing within our society. Then again, perhaps it is indicative of nothing more than a slow news week.
Either way, if you present ill-thought out and factually incorrect arguments against a form of music that I love, you can expect me to offer a passionate piece of my mind.
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