Oct 232013

(In this post, Andy Synn offers thoughts and opinions about the challenges that upwardly mobile bands face once they reach the peak of success within the confines of metal, and about the risks of attempting to make a leap into the mainstream. Your thoughts, as always, will be welcome in the Comment section.)

Oooh… there’s that word. The “M” word. A term so divisive I bet half of you just vomited from sheer internet-based rage. A word so contentious we had to invent our own subdivision of it (the “metal mainstream”) just to better separate the “true” from the “false”.

But… does it have its place? And if it does (and I think it does)… what are we going to do with it?

After the jump… my lengthy, stream-of-consciousness, pseudo-philosophical ramblings on the subject!


A conversation that often comes up in discussions between us metal folk is “Who do you think is going to be The Next Metallica?” It invariably leads to a series of suggested names, a discussion of their relative pros and cons, their selling points and their idiosyncrasies, as well as an argument (sometimes quite a heated one) of exactly why and how Metallica got to where they are (and what we can learn from it).

Now my personal opinion at the moment is that we’re not going to see any Metallica-sized success story sprout up from the metal underground for a good long time – and I am not including your Disturbeds or your Death Punches in this, bands with little to no underground history of their own who, despite no lack of ambition (and a certain level of self-delusion), seem destined for a comfortable existence in the middle of the mainstream doghouse.

No, in my opinion it seems more likely that we’re going to enter a fallow period without metal representation (to that world-bestriding level) in the upper echelons of the mainstream establishment.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s certainly true that the metal-friendly proportion of the music-loving public has grown over the years. The genre’s added legitimacy (both internally and externally) has made it more possible for the top tier (in terms of sales and exposure) of metal bands in the “metal mainstream” – a term I’m sure you’re all familiar with – to make a lasting career out of their music.

And yet, ironically, it’s this very increase in success and prestige (or at least, the available opportunities for success and exposure) that makes it harder for any “legitimate” metal band to achieve that Metallica-like jump in popularity.

You see, Metallica benefitted from a mix of chance and circumstance (and some well-developed choices on their part) which made them something of a surprise to the mainstream audience. The music press picked up on them as something fresh and new and exciting, something which the mainstream (and not just the nascent rock/metal mainstream, suffering from hair metal fatigue and grungy nausea) had never really experienced.

But these days the music press are (arguably) far more open to acknowledging metal as having its own viable, dare I say even respected, existence. People are, arguably, more aware that the genre lives and breathes and exists under its own auspices. So quite simply there’s less need for bands to break-out in quite the same way.

Or… is there?

Metallica themselves were responsible for taking some big steps toward cross-culture appeal – hiring Bob Rock, streamlining their material, etc – acknowledging that the next stage in their evolution required them to adapt and grow and change.

Now that’s not to say that bands can’t maintain a career at a certain level without going mainstream – look at Slayer for a prime example – but it tends to involve a much more static musical identity. You stop evolving, and simply start maintaining. And you could even argue that Metallica (and here we come to the crux of the matter) had evolved to a point where simply maintaining their position at the top of the metal pile wasn’t going to cut it anymore. The only way was up… or right back down again.

At some points certain bands – by the very nature of their success and (often unexpected) rise to prominence – are forced into a choice between maintaining their (often tenuous) underground credibility (at the expense of further opportunities) and sacrificing it in order to take advantage of the (similarly tenuous) chances at greater stardom on offer!

And although we tell ourselves that we’d all make the right choice in these circumstances – we’d make the mainstream accept us and our sound unchanged, we’d prove that we’re bigger and better than the “sell-outs” – I’m not sure that’s a very realistic stance to take. In effect, that perspective tries to deny that the mainstream has its own standards and ways of working. It maintains the arrogance of “underground elitism” while ignoring the reality of the situation.

(photo by Giles Smith)

Currently it’s the turn of everyone’s favourite “false metal” whipping boys Trivium to try their hand at this big jump. Realistically they’ve long since reached a stage in their career where they’re in desperate need of their own Black Album style success (something which they’ve already attempted once before with The Crusade). They’ve basically maxed out what they can achieve in the metal arena – even at its most mainstream level – and so their options are pretty limited. They’re in danger of becoming victims of their own success.

Sure, they could kowtow to pressure from their old-school fans and produce another Ascendancy. And although they might get some flak for recycling old ideas or failing to progress (you really can’t win sometimes, can you?) as long as the songs are heavy and honest, then surely that would be fine? But again, that would simply be delaying the inevitable (you could argue they’ve already made this sort of emergency regression in sound once already with Shogun).

The pressure to sell-out (a contentious term in itself, and one I’ll try to avoid using as much as possible) has reached the bursting point.

Much like Metallica’s hiring of Bob Rock, Trivium’s decision to bring in David Draiman – master of the generic empowerment anthem – is about more than just tapping his knowledge of mainstream production values. It’s about benefitting (though some might not call it that) from his knowledge of how to exploit mainstream values for his own success.

That’s why every song is so broadly and non-specifically anthemic, and why every chorus is SUNG IN CAPS LOCK. Because the mainstream is no place for nuance.

Ok, so that’s clearly a very broad statement. And not a wholly accurate one either (there’s a grand history of subversive pop acts cleverly deconstructing the nature of the mainstream while working within its confines after all)… but here’s the thing – the mainstream, as an entity, works differently. Its very nature is to amalgamate the shared tastes and preferences common to as large a cross-section of society as possible. That’s the reason it’s both phenomenally successful (appealing to such a huge range of people and their shared commonalities) and often incredibly bland and generic (as the range of styles and sounds which have that level of mass appeal is limited).

It’s no surprise that the ubiquitous “dance beat” is present in most modern pop/hip-hop/electronic music. Those rhythms and the urge to dance are particularly instinctive and primal. Simplistic, even. Hence their wide appeal. It’s also no surprise that even the most melodic and artistic of metal bands – ones with the sort of natural grasp of melody and harmony that puts most “pop” bands to shame – struggle to break through into the public consciousness. It’s not enough just to be able to sing and soar with grace, you have to be able to appeal to the mass consciousness, an amalgamation of simple drives and urges.

So when Trivium make the necessary changes to their sound in order to manhandle their way into the mainstream, people accuse them of “dumbing down”. Which is certainly one way to look at it. But similarly you could very well look at it as refocusing their sound by (ironically) making it more focussed on elements with the widest appeal.

In a sense they’re lucky though. Their sound, right from the start, had a wealth of mainstream potential. No, they didn’t have to exploit that potential – although, with so few bands making it to their level, it would perhaps have been churlish of them not to at least try! – but it was always inherent in their chosen sound.

This isn’t the case for a lot of metal bands. Let’s go back to my earlier point about how the growing prominence of the metal scene has, paradoxically, made it harder for some bands to break through into the mainstream consciousness.

Over time we’ve seen a steady rise in popularity of more extreme and/or challenging bands – at least relative to the expectations of many (and certainly relative to the established “metal mainstream”). As our scene has become self-sustaining, it has allowed a number of heavier and more artistic bands to achieve a level of success that would previously have been beyond them. Gojira, for example, immediately come to mind as a band reaping the rewards of the expanded metal scene without sacrificing their “integrity” and altering their sound.

But even they are in danger of falling into the same trap I mentioned earlier – once you’ve “peaked” in the metal scene, where do you go?

It seems (drawing something of a generalisation here) that you either step up to the mainstream – and invariably suffer the slings and arrows of the kvltists who take your decision as a personal insult – or you spend the rest of your career trying to reproduce your glory days, fighting hard to maintain your position as the biggest fish in a small, and increasingly more crowded, pond.

There is, however, an “out” which sidesteps this problematic dichotomy – and that’s the pursuit of artistic integrity. Done right, it means you can maintain a career at the top of the metal mountain, whilst also continuing to change and evolve on your own terms. But once again, this isn’t necessarily an option that’s open to all metal bands.

I suppose it’s worth closing with the following warning – be careful what you wish for. Trying to manhandle the mainstream invariably results in an array of burned bridges and bruised egos. And not all bands can weather that sort of storm. The step up to the big time can utterly ruin a promising career – particularly because you can’t rely on the notoriously fickle underground scene to embrace you when you come crawling back, tail between your legs.

But sometimes, the only way to go is up! Just remember that the higher you climb, the farther you have to fall!


  1. There is nothing inherently wrong with mainstream heavy music, but there is certainly something wrong with Trivium. They have literally been trying be the “next Metallica” for years now. However, if you look at Deftones (that’s why I said “mainstream heavy music” earlier), they’ve always done their own thing.
    A side note on Trivium: I was listening to the satellite radio metal station recently (for some reason…), and Trivium was featured on their “artist takeover” program. The featured band members take turns playing songs and explaining their choices beforehand. Matt Heafy played two songs from the Roadrunner United collaberation album, both of which featuring the guitarist himself. One song had Dani Filth on vocals, the other had King Diamond. He described both songs as the BEST thing either vocalist had done… Nah, son. Not even close.

    • I actually thought the songs featuring king diamond and dani filth were amongst the worst on that whole release. Then again Dani Filth’s best vocal performances are when he’s not.

      • I haven’t listened to the whole cd, and those two songs didn’t exactly sell me on it… but I totally agree with you about Dani Filth! He’s arguably my least favorite part of a band that I don’t really like in the first place.

  2. I’m also reminded of an interview I read with the guitarist/main songwriter in Fit for an Autopsy (seen here: http://www.metalsucks.net/2013/09/10/will-putney-interview/). In part of the interview he basically says that they put certain breakdown parts in their songs to induce crazy moshing in the crowd at live shows. He even says those parts aren’t his favorite on the album, but he’s happy that kids like it. I respect his candid response about the breakdowns, even though I think breakdowns should be song-serving instead of crowd-pleasing. However, somehow they manage to work on the recordings as well. So I think if bands can do crowd-pleasing stuff it’s not necessarily “selling out” or pandering, but you have to make it work in the medium. I think taking your personal tastes out of the equation at certain points is not only difficult, but can be really rewarding in not only gaining new fans but also giving yourself a new perspective as a songwriter and musician.

    • I think you’ve just brought up another balancing act bands have to play – between recording something which sounds awesome, that you’d put on at home or on headphones and drown in the musical bliss, versus something playable in a live setting. A lot of the time it would probably be in a live setting where you might have a 45-minute or so slot in amongst other bands and feel the need to put on something that gets a good crowd response. The performance aspect vs the sound separated from the band while being reproduced on a stereo/personal audio device, is I guess what I’m saying.

      • Personally I quite enjoy when the ‘live’ version of a song is subtly different to the ‘recorded’ version. It shows that the band have put some thought into the HOW of their performance, rather than just shoving a load of backing tracks and such at it.

  3. A considered piece Andy, I think you’ve managed to sum up a lot of the challenges in a way that isn’t too prescriptive.

    I think we can all agree that there’ll never be another Metallica/big 4 kind of band. If you just take another look at the kind of pop/rock bands that were around when Metallica started, few of them are really left anyway, and you don’t hear people talking about ‘who will be the next Bon Jovi’, so in way it is kind of weird that in the metal community this kind of question comes up all the time.

    I don’t know if anyone’s read Alvin Toffler’s works, but back in the 70’s he was talking about ‘the rise of the cults’, effectively that the future would have less of a mainstream in general, with tastes more varied and less common ground existing between people in society in general (he was talking about a whole range of things, not just art like music & movies, but also sports, and a more diversified media). And his predictions seem to have come true in every respect – especially with the internet allowing a global audience to potential fans, I can hear the work of an unsigned new band just as easy as anything from a big label (so long as you know they exist in the crowd, of course). The sheer diversity of what’s on offer means it’s less likely that any one musician or band will be revered by so many – even if you take into account the Justin Bieber’s of the world, they still aren’t listened to by as wider proportion of society as Sinatra or the big names of old (oh my god, I just put Bieber and Sinatra in the same sentence!, I’ll shut up now).

    • THIS is a superb point, and I think a very significant reason why the odds of there ever being another Metallica are slim and none.

    • Thank you. One thing I was definitely trying not to do was say “The mainstream is bad! You ambitions are different than mine! You are a bad person!” as I think you CAN definitely “go mainstream” without sacrificing your integrity.

      But not EVERYONE can, of course.

      I have never read any of Mr Toffler’s work, but am now considering tracking some down! The point about the diversification of music now being more widely available is a good one too. More bands have an opportunity to be heard, but also all have to share the SAME expanding spotlight.

      • I actually read his work after seeing an interview where Burton Bell was talking about that was where the title for ‘Powershifter’ came from – which may put you off! (I dunno, there don’t seem to be many Ff fans around these days…). Also, it means I can add it to my ever-growing list of things I was inspired to read via metal (seriously it’s getting to be quite a list).

        But yeah if you’re interested he wrote three books: Future Shock, Powershift, and The Third Wave. They’re basically all meditations covering different aspects of the same theme – the way society is heading and so what the future is likely to hold. Like anything about the future he gets some things wrong, but given he was writing this in the 60s-70s I was really surprised at the amount of things I could mentally tick off, and think ‘yeah, that’s happening’ (when I read them just a few years ago). I don’t want to over-hype them as being phenomenal, but I do still think about some of the content every now and then.

  4. I think if you are in a band these days trying to be the next Metallica you’re gonna have a bad time. The next great metal band is gonna be something completely different and fresh to the masses like Metallica was pre black album. Similar to what Korn did for Nu and NIN did for Industrial.

    • We were talking about this subject internally, and someone (can’t remember who) made this same point — that the next big thing is going to come out of left field as a surprise, something very new and very different. In that context, I half-jokingly made an argument that Ghost has become the next big thing. Of course, they’re not doing something new and surprising, they’re just pulling forward styles that were originated decades ago and marrying them to satanic lyrics and eye-catching costumes, but in this day and age what they’re doing did seem to come out of left field.

    • That’s definitely something I’m feeling. BUT with the “rise” of metal (and its diversification) it’s arguable whether any form of metal is ever really going to be considered “fresh” to the masses.

      We are all victims of our own success/legitimacy, in that sense.

  5. good post, a lot to think about. on a side note, i really want to go to a Metallica concert. just once. but i think i would need a second job to afford those tickets. and that’s just wrong.

    • I’m just pissed that I missed them this summer/fall/whatever season it was in San Diego when they were at Comic-Con. Granted, I didn’t go to Comic-Con, so I couldn’t have won tickets, but still – to have them at such a great venue (Spreckels Theatre) so close to me was a little painful, also considering I’ve also never seen them (though besides that concert it has to have been well before my metal consciousness since they’ve toured San Diego).

    • They ARE worth seeing. The songs themselves are still (mainly) classics. And it really is an ‘experience’ unlike most (perhaps any) other metal show.

      But… for me there’s definitely a sense that once you’ve seen them once, you don’t really gain much by seeing them multiple times afterwards.

      • There was this one time when I’ve seen them twice in two weeks..
        And also the second time they were still awesome 😉

        But the tickets are too pricy for me to go and see them again any time soon I guess.

  6. Only when metal will be ‘cool’ again amongst teenagers there will be a slight chance of another Metallica popping up. At the time (the ’80s) metal was quite popular – albeit in a more glamorous and slick form – and metallica arrived at the right time, with the right music and the right quality to win over the general audience (both teenagers and more adult people alike).

    Later on, during the 90s and somewhat at the beginning of the 00s, other bands managed to keep heavy music ‘cool’ and took their stab at mainstream succes, such as Nirvana and Korn, but arguably these bands have little to no metal influences besides being heavy, screamy and overall depressed (I’d say the first one none, and the latter some).

    At the moment metal is as established (dare I say more?) as rock, and I do not think it needs another Metallica. It’s generally music for adults and the more sophisticated youngsters, and it has a very dedicated and international fanbase. And there are quite a number of bands that become popular within the boundaries of metal (Dark Tranquillity, Gojira, Slayer, Hypocrisy/Peter Tätgren, etc etc) and are able to make a good living out of it for a long period of time, so there really is no need for these bands to try and make a ‘black album’. And besides, if you’re in music to make some extra cash, metal is the wrong genre to go with in the first place; and everyone knows that.

    • “And there are quite a number of bands that become popular within the boundaries of metal (Dark Tranquillity, Gojira, Slayer, Hypocrisy/Peter Tätgren, etc etc) and are able to make a good living out of it for a long period of time, so there really is no need for these bands to try and make a ‘black album’.”

      I make this exact point in the article. But i also point out quite clearly that SOME bands (i.e. Trivium, etc) end up in a position where producing something similar is one of very few options they have left.

      • Indeed you did make a very similar point. I think I was at one hand just agreeing with what you were saying, and on the other hand going into this:

        “Realistically they’ve long since reached a stage in their career where they’re in desperate need of their own Black Album style success”

        And claim that (1) they don’t really have to, and (2) they wouldn’t be able to, even if they wanted. I realise you adressed both points more or less, but what the hell I just gave my 2 cents anyway.

        Too bad about Trivium though; I really felt like indeed they tried to aim for something bigger than the (relatively small) teen adience that cares about metal(core), which resulted in albums that were in my humble opinion over-produced commercially sounding pieces of human waste products. And that when their initial start – Ascendancy and even The Crusade – weren’t even half bad.

  7. Before I start making individual responses, can I just say thank you to everyone who actually made it through my lengthy ramble!

  8. I’m a bit late to the party, but I’d still like to express my appreciation of this article. Nice job once again, Andy! Particularly this sentence:

    [T]he mainstream is no place for nuance.

    struck me as one of those rare observations that are both obvious and hard to become aware of. It goes a long way in explaining my resentment of much that is main-stream — in music and other things.

    Now I think that what makes the “metal underground” so attractive to many metalheads is that it actually does allow for nuance, and, (more than others, let alone mainstream) dares to bring up sensitive topics, and to tear down the façade of joy and happiness so many people put up nowadays. Life isn’t (always) fun, and metal is not afraid to acknowledge it.
    Now, when bands try to pop out into mainstream, they’ll have to “dumb down” and be more considerate about what their music is about — I suspect that this is one of the main causes of the resentment and disapproval these bands encounter on their dash to fame.

    (I guess I have some kind of habit to read this type of article on NCS in a broader, societal context, because most of my comments to them seem to be in such a direction… It’s probably just the comfort I draw from getting assured that I’m not alone in the “concerned about, and annoyed by, the lack of thought, reflection, nuance and contemplation in society” camp. Or, for that matter, in the “What’s wrong with 50-word sentences?” camp.)

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