I’ll never forget what it was like to discover extreme metal for the first time. Thumbing through the glossy pages of Metal Maniacs and Kerrange magazine and seeing the images of larger than life, bullet belt and spike clad beasts that consumed me, gave me a completely skewed view of underground metal. As I grew older and immersed myself more deeply into the underground world, I became more acutely aware of the misconceptions I had about extreme metal. I realize that many die hards are most likely already privy to much of this information, but it’s important to note that there are several inequities surrounding extreme metal that prevent the culture from achieving the sort of recognition it deserves. Also, there’s just some genuinely funny, little known, realities about extreme metal that are simply worth sharing. For one thing….
1. There’s No Such Thing as Groupies
Any sixteen year old, hormone filled, teenage boy looking to score brownie points with the girls in his life by becoming a musician, shouldn’t touch death metal with 75 and half-foot pole. Extreme metal has never been very girl friendly. The aggression and nefariousness of the sound, combined with the fact that for some reason, the ugliest of our species seem to create the most hateful music act as a girl repellent.
Even well-known bands, like Metallica and Anthrax, can’t realistically harken back to the glory days of girls, girls, girls. Of course, there are women into metal. Many, in fact. But women into metal are generally less superficial than women into other genres. Metal itself requires more from the listener than casual pop music because of its complexity and depth. It is also less readily accessible than other forms of music because of limited radio play and publicity, meaning that people seek it out because it adds meaning to their lives. So the people who are attracted to it tend to be less superficial than say, the people who were attracted to glam bands with regular appearances on MTV.
Usually, women into metal are there for the music and not for the opportunity to meet a celebrity. They also tend to be more cerebral, meaning that a for attraction to occur, there needs to be more than just a one-dimensional connection between two counterparts. It takes more than good looks and money to impress a metal chick. You need a brain. If you’re looking for money, you’re looking in the wrong place anyway because……
2. No One Is Really Making Big Bucks
Because of the things I mentioned earlier, lack of publicity and radio play, it’s difficult for a band playing extreme metal to generate any sort of substantial income. Even the bands that have reached legendary status are living somewhat modest lifestyles. For example, Fenriz of Darkthrone fame, one of the originators of the second wave of black metal, has held a steady day job at the post office for over a decade.
There are other factors that come into play as well. Extreme metal maintains a certain anti- commercial aesthetic and runs on an underground ethic that prevents bands from making money the way many pop artists do, ie perfume and clothing lines. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for bands to make money selling records today because of popularity of internet downloading and free streaming. Even back in the tape trading days, however, bands outside the mainstream weren’t generating most of their income from record sales, instead relying on constant touring for income, which often led to burn out and disillusionment for the bands. It hasn’t changed much since those days. Basically, unless you’re Slayer, you’re not making that much money.
When I was younger, I had no concept of how bad it really was. A lot of good bands are literally paying out-of-pocket to get to out-of-town gigs, for which they won’t see dime for playing. Next time you go to a fest, remember a good majority of the bands playing aren’t getting paid at all to be there. They work day jobs and, because of an extreme work ethic, and a die-hard dedication to the music, they show up and rip the faces off crowds of moshing fans. Even when these bands get signed, it takes quite a bit of time before the income they generate goes to anything other than gear and travel. I’ve always found this fact about extreme metal upsetting because, for one…..
3. It’s Extremely Difficult to Play
Remember what I said about extreme work ethic? Well, extreme metal musicians, death and thrash metal in particular, need it because metal is among the most difficult of all genres to play. In fact, the only musical genres that even parallel the complexity of extreme metal are classical and jazz.
Metal emphasizes soloing, shredding, and blasts, all musical styles that require a great deal of practice to perfect. The rise in popularity of tech death has only served to raise the bar for metal as well. Younger extreme metal audiences are looking for more and more musical prowess and technicality in music every year.
And the guttural vocals that everyone outside metal seems to complain about, well those are extremely difficult to execute as well. It’s not just screaming like many people seem to think. If you want to hear screaming, listen to screamo. Death metal vocals encompass a wide variety of vocal techniques, like tongue placement, and breathing exercises to produce those low, demonic growls. The masses seem to only care about the fact that you can’t understand the lyrics, however. I always found that funny because….
4. A Lot of Bands Don’t Even Have Lyrics
Yep, you read that right. I found this out in an interview with Sodomized vocalist, Eric Newton, after to asking him a question about the lyrical content on the band’s latest release. He admitted he didn’t really see the point in writing lyrics since people couldn’t understand him anyway.. This is more than just an isolated case, however. In the mini documentary “Florida: Thrash ‘Til Death”, John Tardy of Obituary admits to not singing lyrics while onstage.
Many times what happens, with death metal in particular, is someone from the band will write lyrics, and the vocalist won’t learn them right away if at all. Because of the nature of the death metal vocal, no one really notices. Death metal lyrics don’t claim to be meaningful even when they are written. The point is to invoke feelings of fear and disgust from their audiences. That goal can be achieved through grotesque artwork, repulsive song titles, crunchy riffs, and low-end guttural vocals that sound like the singer is gargling the blood of his victims. Lyrics are of less importance than these other factors in relaying a band’s overall message.
Of course, there are extreme metal bands that put a lot of effort into their lyrical content. Behemoth comes to mind as Adam Darski (Nergal) often uses music as a medium to spread his occult message. Even Napalm Death utilizes their influence to espouse their political ideals. But the main point I’m making here is that song lyrics are not of great importance to extreme metal. Death metal vocals serve more as an instrument themselves rather than a purveyor of information. They are there for the atmosphere. So in short, it doesn’t matter that much what the band is saying all that really matters is how the music makes you feel. I suppose it’s a good thing death metal lyrics are mostly filler because…..
5. Bands Are a Revolving Door and Many Musicians Play in Several Bands
It’s pretty much always been that way. Most people know that Dave Mustaine was replaced by Kirk Hammet in Metallica but did you know that Kirk Hammet played for Exodus before he joined with Metallica? It’s simply the nature of the scene. Metal fans share a camaraderie and passion that often sparks a yearning in the fans to create it themselves. Go to any underground metal gig around the world and I’m willing to bet at least forty percent of the audience can play at least one instrument. With so many musicians in the scene it’s easy to see how bands can become a revolving door.
Also, extreme metal exists as an entity outside the musicians, meaning that fans aren’t simply idolizing a great guitar player or vocalist, they are in love with the aggression and energy of the sound. It’s uncommon for fans to turn their back on a band for switching guitar players or vocalists as long as the new member has chops.
Because of the tight-knit nature of underground metal communities, many musicians will also play for several bands at a time. Particularly drummers and bassists who are a commodity because of their relative scarcity. Passion for the music often leads band members to start side projects as well, that sometimes blow up. Anthrax’s Scott Ian, for example went on to form S.O.D. whilst simultaneously playing in Anthrax because of his love for hard-core. S.O.D. is respected to this day for their involvement in creating the crossover genre in thrash.
The D.I.Y. nature of underground metal combined with the technicality of the music both attracts and creates musicians hungrier than ever to put their mark on the scene. Shared passion for a musical style not celebrated by mainstream audiences creates a natural bond between fans of the music so it’s only natural that a lot of integration between bands would occur. Because of the underground aesthetic of extreme metal, a new member is often already well-known within fan circles, so the number of bands playing with, sometimes as few as, a single original member remaining is not all that surprising, nor is the fact that fans haven’t turned on these bands. Morbid Angel’s decision to replace David Vincent with Steve Tucker went over much better than Iron Maiden’s decision to replace Bruce Dickenson with Blaze Bailey, for example. Blaze Bailey is basically a cum stain on the history of metal whereas death metal die hards celebrate Formulas Fatal to the Flesh as a brutal and original work of art.
It’s because this music is, and always will be underground, that a shared ethic exists among its fans; and that’s dedication to the extreme, which is why Metallica’s decision to turn their backs on thrash in favor of mainstream rock was far more detrimental to their image among die-hard thrash fans than their decision to replace Cliff Burton after his passing. This proverbial middle finger extreme metal gives to the mainstream is one of the reasons why the bands who play it will never experience the glitz and glamour mainstream bands receive, which is why, for one thing….
6. There Isn’t a Backstage Per Say
Extreme metal bands generally play in dark, graffiti riddled clubs. The clubs are small and there are no dressing rooms or any of that shit. Not that the bands really need it. Death metal is come as you are, fuck primping. An all access pass will typically grants a person access through all entrances of the club without being searched which makes it really easy to sneak in beer and what not, (a really cool perk especially since free beer for the bands is mostly a thing of the past) but there’s no secret area backstage where a party is happening. Bigger bands party hard on tour buses and in hotels and every once in a while there’s a basement in the club where the bands can bring in beer and other substances but that’s not extremely common either.
What’s cool about this is that the bands are generally down to earth and get up close with the fans. It’s fairly common to see the members of the headlining bands in the audience banging their heads to the opening bands. You can shake their hands and tell them how much you admire their work and even share a beer or two with them. This casual attitude in extreme metal is part of what makes it so near and dear to the fans who love it. You feel like you’re a part of it rather than just a spectator. No one in the underground is treated like a rock star so no one acts like it. And that is way cooler than fucking VIP nonsense anyway.
These realities about extreme metal are what make the genre unique in comparison to other musical styles. The fact is, the underground has been the same since its conception in the early eighties and that’s part of what makes it so magical. Extreme metal was, is, and always will be a fire kept burning by some of the most dedicated fans in the world which is why is has remained pure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.