(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!