Something interesting happened around 2003. At this point, the black metal community woke up and realized a couple of unsettling things.
First, they suddenly saw that since 1995, nothing much had been happening and the few good bands had been drowned out by a sea of imitators. Second, they recognized that what was replacing the “trve kvlt” black metal was a new form of music that mixed indie rock, shoegaze, emo, post-hardcore, and punk rock with black metal and death metal flavorings.
This was a counterpart to what happened in death metal around the year 2000 when “metalcore,” or technical hardcore with death metal stylings, effectively replaced death metal. We now call this “technical death metal” and “melodic death metal” but it has less in common with death metal than breakaway punk bands like Neurosis and Human Remains.
Starting a few years later, the “true metal” movement was born. It exists in several genres, but has grouped heavy metal and speed metal into power metal, pushed death metal and doom metal into the same genre, and in black metal, has barely manifested itself at all. As black metal is the most popular underground metal genre perhaps ever, it will be the last to fall.
The press is even starting to notice.
Between revivals of classic heavy metal genres and iconic bands’ reunion tours, it’s clear that a love of tradition still runs deep in aggressive music culture. Metalheads are infamous for their Klingon-like loyalty to the bands and styles they love; many metal heads don’t just let their musical tastes inform their listening habits, but everything from their style of dress to their social circles. In 2011, many bands sought to honour these hardcore fans with tours and albums that paid tribute to, and drew inspiration from, respected genre conventions. While still outside the mainstream, aggressive music now has the strength and power of a rich musical heritage all its own, and found success in celebrating that.
The year saw many significant bands reuniting, including the recent announcement that the original Black Sabbath line-up would be writing a new album together and embarking upon a world tour. Anthrax reunited with vocalist Joey Belladonna to record a new album, and thrash’s Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax) toured together for the first time in their mutual history.
Successful genre revivals, such as thrash and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, continued to thrive. Unlike other genres, metal is not trendy, and to delve into a particular style of metal means to invest in a vast back-catalogue as well as seek out new music. Fans of NWOBHM are just as likely to be listening to old Raven LPs as they are to be enjoying the latest 3 Inches of Blood release. Albums are valued by fans for how much they adhere to the conventions of these beloved genres; to say something sounds exactly like an early example is a form of praise.
It’s not so much that true metal is a genre, but a label that bands are applying to their music to say that they are not part of the newer hybrid genre, and that they want to return to the spirit that produced the great music of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The spirit is what allows bands to create music that carries the power of older metal, say fans, and many fans suggest that the newer music has lost that spirit because it’s going in another direction. Whatever the case, the true metal movement is suggesting that metal isn’t just a bunch of techniques and tropes, but a gestalt that ties them all together and communicates some kind of union with power and transcendence of the human condition, while more recent metal hybrids have been all about celebrating that human condition.
It should be exciting to watch this pan out.