May 082013

(Andy Synn offers some observations about two seemingly divergent perspectives within metal that may not be so divergent after all.  Discuss!)

Let me make something clear from the outset here: I am not trying to build up an argument with this piece insomuch as I simply felt like writing down and acknowledging some stuff that (to me) seems pretty self-evident in the metal scene.

The two points I am going to address are, largely, intertwined – though at first they might seem almost diametrically opposed to one another.

First, I’m going to address the issue of “privilege”. Now “privilege” is a word that often crops up in feminist discussions (often I think to the detriment of that discussion) referring to how supposedly Middle (and Upper) class feminists can’t really relate to the issues affecting other women because they speak from a position of “privilege”. Their position of “privilege” might come with certain specific problems of its own, but ultimately it invalidates their experience, as it can’t be generalised. The same things happen in the metal media.


Many metal musicians speak (unconsciously) from a position of privilege. Unaware of this – through simple misapprehension mostly, not wilful ignorance – they universalise their experiences to the entirety of the metal scene. And mostly this occurs when bands with a certain level of success try and comment on the metal scene as a whole, when what they REALLY refer to only really applies to the most mainstream and over-exposed of metal bands.

The most recent example comes from Robert Trujillo of Metallica who, when asked about the state of metal today, said the following:

“There’s a part of me that feels that there are bits and pieces missing from the ingredients. I think the purity of what metal was in the early ’80s and ’70s, and even in some sense the ’90s, has been lost. Every band back then had an identity and I think today for me, I lose track of the identity. When you go back, you knew if you were listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or UFO. In the ’80s, you knew if you were listening to Van Halen or Judas Priest and Metallica. In the ’90s, you had Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Suicidal Tendencies. There always has to be an identity.”

Now, tellingly, here we at least get a lot of “I think”s. He’s not trying to present this as fact or as gospel. But it does raise some obvious issues, particularly for those of us who ARE immersed in the metal scene. I for one simply don’t recognise the world he’s talking about here. And I can suggest why.

He’s talking from a position of “privilege”. He’s in the mainstream. That’s what he knows and we shouldn’t begrudge him it, as he’s talking from within his own sphere of experience. And heck, the mainstream has (inarguably?) become more homogenised over the years. I certainly couldn’t tell you the difference between the multitude of female-fronted “pop-punk” bands or the plethora of breakdown-heavy fashionistas that litter the charts with their generic drivel.

But Trujillo’s position of “privilege” means that although he sits atop the musical mountain, he doesn’t really know much more than where he is right now. His vision is pretty limited. But worst of all it seems like his memory is most at fault. It’s like he’s forgotten there’s an underground scene at all. And I’m not talking about the “extreme” scene in particular. I’m talking about the large numbers of bands who sell a LOT of records, and a LOT of tickets to their shows, without mainstream media recognition.

And I don’t want you to think I’m singling Mr Trujillo out for censure here. It happens to a broad array of musicians. Upon reaching a certain level they develop a really blinkered view of things. They generalise to “This is all I’m aware of, so this is all there must be.” Trujillo’s comments about the “purity” of metal definitely smack of a rose-tinted view of things (and continue to perpetuate the artificial stereotype that there’s some “special” way of doing things that bands have forgotten), while his suggestions that bands today lack an “identity” of their own is the sort of thing that could be torn down with impunity, as we could offer endless examples that contradict him.

So what these sorts of statements actually tell us the most about is the person making them, and very little about the music scene itself. There are unspoken caveats to what he’s saying. For one thing, he’s obviously talking only about American metal. I doubt very much he’s aware of much from outside his own country (not a criticism by the way, just an observation – he won’t have the time or inclination to do the sort of digging and searching like we do here at NCS for example). He’s also very clearly only really talking about the bands Metallica interact with, or encounters vicariously – and Metallica exist almost in their own stratified little world. Ultimately he comes across here, through no fault of his own really, as a man very much out of touch with the scene as it is today. His “privileged” position only exposes how detached he is.


(By contrast, and as, little side point, compare his simple statement here about his personal perceptions with something the members of Disturbed said back around the time they released the Believe album. That was the album where the band abandoned nu-metal for the pretensions of “serious” metal – with guitar solos and lyrics about religion and junk… and it was also the time they started disappearing up their own collective arsehole and thinking that they were, in some manner, more important than they really are. The band name-dropped, without any sense of irony or shame, Shadows Fall, Atreyu, and Avenged Sevenfold, as bands who they felt were following in their footsteps by bringing back the guitar solo!

That’s right… in one fell swoop they took credit for “bringing back” guitar solos, while also conveniently forgetting/ignoring the fact that the bands in question had existed longer than, and had more albums than, Disturbed themselves.

This one was just wilful ignorance, and a far worse case than anything Rob Trujillo might have said. This was the case of a band with no real underground or pre-mainstream career to speak of (something I’ve always found incredibly suspicious) trying to take credit or claim influence that they didn’t deserve, while also exposing their own blinkered view that bands apparently don’t exist until they are “legitimised” by the mainstream. That wasn’t just privilege, it was unearned privilege!)


The second point is linked to the first one, and in fact shares many of the same features, even though the bands in question dwell largely on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of success/exposure. This is the issue of punk “ethics” or “punk purity”, which has been rearing its ugly head again recently, largely as a response to KickStarter and its ilk.

Several bands (most recently A Life Once Lost) have kicked up a bit of a fuss about KickStarter ruining the “purity” of how metal (in particular recording and/or touring) should be done.

Note the emphasis (mine) on “should” there. The general gist (one shared by almost all the bands involved) is that there is a certain way metal should be done, and doing it differently is apparently a major moral/ethical no-no.

Now, isn’t there a similar sense of “privilege” shining through here as well? This perspective is coloured by the fact that these bands interpret how they have done it as being the right way to do it. Objectively right. As if the so-called “rules” of metal were set in stone long ago. And to be honest I find that incredibly restrictive and (irony of ironies) painfully dogmatic.

The thing is, KickStarter is just one way of doing things in today’s fluctuating musical climate: there ARE still bands doing it the “punk” way, the right way, just as there are bands finding even more alternatives that allow them to function. Programs like KickStarter and such, at their best, foster a direct connection between bands and their supporters (I hesitate to use the word “fans”). They remove the middle man. They allow for communication, of a sort, between the two that is more direct and more efficient than the traditional divide fostered by mediation between record labels and cd stores, etc.

Though there have been some rather questionable, often stupid uses of the system – it’s hard to support the ethics of a band offering idiotic bonuses (often with a significant price tag attached) that have little to do with the music itself – it’s allowed me personally to support a band directly. Bands who live halfway around the world. Bands who wouldn’t exist without the direct support of their fans and listeners. It’s far from perfect yet, but it’s an incredibly useful new paradigm. Like any tool though, it’s open to abuse or misuse. But to presume to judge the whole system, instead of on a case-by-case basis, is absolutely the height of arrogance.

That’s the “privilege” of punk though. It allows you to sneer at anyone who does things a way you consider too “easy”. They’re not as good as you, not as real as you, because YOU did it the right way. YOU did it the proper way. And anything different is tantamount to selling out. It’s the worst form of confirmation bias. You’ve already decided that you’re the real deal. Therefore anyone unlike you can’t be real, right?

Now I’m not saying that we should support everything that pops up on KickStarter, et al. Not at all. Groups using it for frivolous purposes, or simply because it seems easier than doing it any other way. Bands who could get an album recorded or a tour booked without KickStarter but who use it anyway… I get it. I see how that looks bad. And the ethics of using it are a separate discussion unto themselves.

But what we’re talking about here is what right has any band to tell another how to work, how to run, how to live?

That’s the privilege of punk – the seizing of some tenuous moral high ground that allows you to judge others who don’t live up to your set of underground standards.

And the thing is, the sorts of bands who trumpet their moral outrage over this AREN’T necessarily wrong – it’s a complex issue and Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, etc, aren’t exactly the best place to provide a coherent argument or analysis of things – but they ARE being incredibly self-righteous. The fact that you choose to act one way does not mean that others who choose differently are wrong.


So here we have it. Two sides of the same coin really, both trying to universalise their own perceptions and experiences. The first type seem to forget where they’ve come from, and can’t even conceive of an existence outside the mainstream. The second know exactly where they’ve come from, and refuse to give credit to anyone who’s come up a different way. Neither side would probably acknowledge the other, but both seem intent on perpetuating the same cycle of competing ignorance and arrogance.


  1. Just an addendum, it’s more than likely I have brought my own sense of “privilege” to this piece as well. I’ve just tried to be as self-aware about it as possible.

  2. Good article. I will say in Robert Trujillo’s favor…the man has gone on record as far back as 2009 espousing his love for Meshuggah so at least he has some awareness beyond the mainstream. As far as the “purity” of the diy punk ethos, I agree it’s going too far in saying my way is right and your way is completely wrong.

    However beyond music related crowd-funding (which I agree with) I will say that the whole Zack Braff kickstarter controversy irks the hell out of me because the man has the money and connections to get a movie made yet decides to brazenly ask for money like he couldn’t have done the project any other way. He freely admits to being able to make it with financing he can get due to his connections. But cries that he would potentially lose on some artistic control. If artistic integrity matters so much to him and he has the money then he should support his project with his own wealth.

    • I almost brought the whole Zach Braff thing in as a contextual comparison, but the whole thing was getting pretty long anyway, and I touched on the idea of it being misused by bands who didn’t need to use it already (e.g. Austrian Death Machine… but that got cut too).

      Glad someone mentioned it though!

  3. That’s an interesting take on it, although part of Trujillo’s statement might be attributed to simple old-guy-ism, i.e., the whole, “Those damn kids today and their [insert genre]! It’s all just noise! When we were kids, we had [Judas Priest/Elvis/Sinatra/big band music/Bach/beating on rocks], and that stuff had real soul!” I’m a pretty open-minded guy when it comes to music, but I’m 40, and I certainly catch myself doing that on occasion in spite of staying fairly current.

    • “Those damn kids today and their nu-metal! It’s all just noise! When we were kids, we had Death, and that stuff had real soul”

      Yeah ? That’s you’re talking about ? 🙂

    • Ha, I tried REALLY hard to avoid saying that.

      I did consider a paragraph about the causation/correlation between this sort of privilege and age though. As, in many cases, this sort of commentary on the metal scene does come from bands with longer, more established careers.

      • I think your argument is still valid. I could see it being a little from column A, a little form column B. I’d suspect that of the “big” bands, most of them aren’t as plugged in to the underground scene as they once were (if they ever were). It’s not like Metallica is going to take somebody like Woe on tour with them.

  4. On a slight tangent, I think even your owbservation shows a bit of moral high ground punk privelidge: “I certainly couldn’t tell you the difference between the multitude of female-fronted “pop-punk” bands or the plethora of breakdown-heavy fashionistas that litter the charts with their generic drivel.”

    I find this to be quite arguable. I just searched the Billboard top 20 and in that bracket is Lil Wayne, Brad Paisley, Rob Zombie Justin Timberlake, and Mumford and Sons. That is a wildly ecclectic spectrum of music and is anything but homoginised. And in truth, the billboard metric is really just a shadow of the real mainstream sensibilities since record sales are no longer dependable and digital music trends show even more diversity as theres so much more easily/readily availible to the masses.

    The digital music part actually comes to another point; dudes in their bedroom tinkering on their protools and recording all the instrument tracks by themselves, distributing their material online, and cultivating a growing fanbase by bookng their own shows are very much continuing the same DIY ethic of punk bands of old. But just because they are doing things the “easy way”, bands who use “real instruments” scoff at them while they stay beholden to the increasingly outdated system of local scene-demo-signing-arena formula.

    • I think, more than a tangent, we’re talking at cross-purposes here.

      You list a variety of pop/rap/rock/indie artists that are on the Billboard chart there. That’s fine. But both Rob (I call him Rob) and I are talking about metal here. And the sort of rock/metal friendly stuff that conglomerates in the charts does (from observation) tend to consist of a certain homogenised type (or types).

      Though the language may have been a bit negative on my part, my actual point was to acknowledge that Rob Trujillo, if taking the charts as his main point of exposure – and factoring out the non-metal relevant artists – was perfectly and understandably a bit miffed at the lack of variety.

      There’s probably an implicit sense of snobby superiority there I suppose (from me, not Rob) but I don’t want that to obscure the point that this isn’t ACTUALLY about how good/bad the bands in question are, it’s actually an acknowledgement of what you state yourself – the charts themselves are their own little bubble. Only certain species survive and proliferate there at any one time anyway, so it’s no surprise that he finds a lack of individuality when he looks there.

  5. Kind of reminds me of Mikael from Opeth saying things like, “Exteme metal is dull these days.” I absolutely love Opeth (I’m going to see them live in a few hours!), but it worries me when a guy that I respect musically as much as him say things like that. Opeth is the very definition of an underground band, the only reason they’re as popular as they are now is because they’ve been around for so long and made such a distinguished name for themselves. Mikael is always talking in interviews about how much music he listens to, his massive vinyl collection, and how he loves old, forgotten underground bands and whatnot…but how can he not see the vibrancy of the current scene? I wonder what he’d think of Ne Obliviscaris? Or maybe the whole Cascadian BM scene, Agalloch, etc.? I’d love to pick his brain, lol.

    • Damn, I’d forgotten about Mikael’s statements. They would also have made for good examples. Again, he finds it dull – which may be a reflection of the amount of effort he’s willing to put in and the overall interest he has in it – but that experience clearly does NOT generalise to a lot of us.

      • You guys are talking about the blinder-vision of rich old fogeys. Next you are going to tell me Steve Harris says there aren’t any good bands in the NWOBHM scene these days. LOL

        Your discussion would be more interesting if you talked about high-profile (I hesitate to say “popular”, but that is what they are) metal artists who aren’t running on fumes. (Wait, do people actually call Opeth’s new direction “metal”?) What’s that? There aren’t any? Good. Now what did you just learn?

        • From you? Pretty much nothing.

          But thanks for stopping by. You take care now.

          • I learned that sometimes people will type entire sentences within parentheses and then punctuate them incorrectly. Learning is fun!

      • It seems like Mikael is just tired of the extreme side of metal these days. From what I understand, he doesn’t really like to perform the heavier songs from the Opeth catalog, with all the deathy, growly goodness anymore, but he does them live because he knows that’s what the fans want to hear. If his interest in extreme metal has waned, it is quite understandable that he would find it dull. Ten years ago I was much more into hip-hop and the like, but have since lost interest. As such, I tend to find any current music of the genre to be boring and unoriginal. The primary cause of this view is the fact that I don’t actively seek out new material, and thus am only exposed to that which is deemed “popular.”

    • I always interpreted his comments are reflecting more of a personal burnout with extreme metal. It is entirely possible that he is aware of newer/experimental/unusual extreme metal bands and just thinks they are shit, but it always seemed more likely to me that after 20+ years, he had just gotten a little sick of it and wanted to go in a different direction, which is perfectly understandable (although I do wish Heritage had been better).

      • I think it’s fairly obvious that he’s burned out with playing it, or else why would they release a record like “Heritage” (which, for the record, I love)? I find it hard to believe that Mikael is burned out with listening to extreme metal, though. Again, Mikael is always talking about his huge music collection…back when he did Storm Corrosion with Steven Wilson I read/watched entire interviews where all they talked about were their musical influences. It would strike me very odd indeed if such a lover of music, someone who seems to have such a cultivated philosophy about music, and exhibits such a finely tuned sense of musicality, would give up on a style of music that he himself made such a notable contribution to. But that’s what it seems like he’s done. Although I can’t really complain if they keep releasing albums as great as “Heritage”.

  6. I’m going to touch on both parts, but first, I don’t think Trujillo is speaking so much out of privilege as he is out of touch. There definitely is a camp of metal fans whose awareness of new music seems to end somewhere around 1990. They might pick up a new band here and there, say if this band opened for Ozzy or something, but they have their Metallica, Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, etc and that’s enough. As you said, it’s doubtful that he even has time to hunt for new music, which would really just be ignorance. If the privilege comes from anywhere, it’s in an expectation that fans/journalists take his word as law since he is in the most popular(up for debate, yes) metal/hard rock band currently active. After all, who is going to challenge Metallica on anything they say? Let me know when he says that again and the journalist come back at him with a Lykathea Aflame, Mithras, Enslaved, or Thy Catafalque.

    As for “punk purity”, outside of the potential for an interesting debate, does it really matter what some “purists” think? If a band compromises their beliefs in how their music should be created/distributed, does it really matter whose beliefs they bent their knee to? Be true to yourselves. Each band’s fans will know when to call bullshit.

  7. i always reflex cringe when a musician, at any level, attempts to comment about the “state of _______”. the experience of being in a band, and your perception of the industry, can vary so much depending on your genre, age, location, scene, etc. i sang and played bass in bands for about 15 years and i wouldn’t even begin to assume that i could provide an accurate description of the state of heavy music or the music industry.
    great article!

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