The Past and Future of Heavy Metal

When the entire landscape of music changes, even this must too.

I don’t really listen to metal anymore.

Sure, I’ll put on some Blind Guardian, or Cynic, or Fen, or Incantation, or Devin Townsend Project once in a while. I’ll occasionally lose myself in Candlemass’s King of the Grey Islands or check out whatever mind-bending mysteries Toby Driver is up to these days. I’ll put on some vintage Agalloch every fall, and still find myself humming the iconic vocal theme to Lost Horizon’s “Highlander (The One)” like, twice a week. I’ll relive some memories with Maiden or Dio or Fates Warning, but really, for the most part, I listen to other stuff these days.

Was it really just a phase, then? Maybe. I don’t know.

But metal was always more than just the music, right? We all know that. When I started listening to metal, I got obsessed with the history and culture of metal. It was never just music, it was a lifestyle, a culture, an institution almost like religion, with its own rituals and factions and symbols and philosophies.

I haven’t listened to Metallica or Megadeth on purpose in over a decade, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t memorized the way Dave Mustaine’s sneer defined defiance for millions, that doesn’t mean I haven’t memorized every single riff on Kill ’Em All, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some part of me that remembers the ancestral legacy of metal’s fight against the PMRC.

Remember that? It was before my time, and yet, when I took it upon myself to subsume the entire history of metal and learn everything, I took up the mantle of this fight as if it were my own. Us against the forces of censorship and corruption, who would have been much happier if we stopped listening to that dang loud, angry music and instead listened to some good-old Christian hymns.

It was never just about the music.

The most peculiar thing about metal — what drew me to it, anyway, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — is that it is both a spark of rage and rebellion for justice against a cruel, evil society and also a self-styled embrace of darkness and evil against the “good” of society. It’s a contradiction. There is seething anger, both in a personal sense and in the sense of the looming injustice of the universe against us.

There was a level of camaraderie, of brotherhood. No matter where you came from, when you went to a show, you could share in this unspoken revelry of togetherness. Other metalheads knew more obscure bands than you, or they could introduce you to the vast variety of subgenres, and they could pass down the myths of these larger-than-life figures who were so much more than people playing guitars and singing on stage. They were cultural forces, heroes and villains and myths and legends, made into something even bigger and bolder and more immortal than any “rock star” could ever be.

I used to sit in my room as a teenager and listen to Iron Maiden’s “Blood Brothers” on repeat, over and over. “We’re blood brothers, we’re blood brothers,” went the chorus, swelling proudly in a hopeful and resonant melody. In the way of many grandiose teenagers, I took that to heart. We as metal fans were blood brothers. And I was so grateful and glad to be part of the metal community.

It was a mantra, a mission statement, a higher purpose. As metalheads, we were true. We didn’t care about superficial bullshit. We didn’t buy into society’s nonsense. We forged our own path of resistance, and we didn’t judge or exclude anyone. It didn’t matter what you looked like or how you dressed or where you came from, but together we forged a shared community of acceptance and love. We were good dressed up as evil, united in our common front against the forces of evil dressed up as good.

That’s what I believed, anyway. But we all know that’s bullshit.

Of course metal has always been rife with toxic masculinity, with racism, with homophobia and misogyny and all sorts of troubling associations with white supremacy. Before I check out any new black metal band, I always have to spend a few hours doing research to make sure they’re not Nazis. It would almost be silly if it weren’t also deadly serious.

Because these things are serious. And maybe it just makes me a snowflake, but there is so much excellent, groundbreaking new music out there, metal and otherwise, that it’s not worth my time to even consider listening to a band who follows so proudly in Varg Vikernes’ footsteps.

And even in less serious matters. It didn’t matter how you presented yourself, or how you dressed, because unlike the judgmental mass hordes metalheads would never turn you away for not fitting in. Except, of course, if you didn’t wear all black at all times, or angrily perform scowls, you were just “fake metal”. So even in escaping mainstream society’s expectations, you had to conform to metal’s expectations, too.

So what does that mean for rebellion? For the present and future of metal? For standing up against the smarmy moralism of mainstream society? Because we’re not in the ’80s anymore. The battle lines have changed drastically.

It’s tempting — and easy — to want to rail in anger and rage against “SJWs” or “snowflakes”, or whatever. Other countercultural communities like “geek culture” or “gamers” or “comic fandoms”, all communities that not coincidentally have significant overlap with metal, are rumbling to do the same.

The line of thinking goes that, now that women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people are finally being afforded a basic measure of decency by mainstream society, that in acts of “rebellion” we must oppose this for… reasons. This is where the self-styled “evil” comes in, but modern expressions of that evil seem feebler than ever, as they try to grasp back to the exact kind of regressive morality metal was supposed to rail against in the first place.

Metal has never really been as inclusive and open as it always aspired to be. Who can forget the endless wars of the ’00s that all the female-fronted bands of that era weren’t “real metal”? Or the massive blowup about how Babymetal was “ruining metal”? Or even still, that a band as incredible and revolutionary as Zeal & Ardor is controversial at all, because instead of white Englishmen appropriating blues to metal, a black person is doing it?

Remember the controversy about Sacred Son’s album cover when it debuted in 2017? How fucking weird was that? A community that proudly surrounds itself with grotesque, gory, blasphemous imagery in a deliberate attempt to provoke suddenly getting its panties in a twist about a picture of a guy in sunglasses smiling?

It’s the same thing that happened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather — the mere presence of the color pink on the album cover led to whole legions of people angrily huffing and puffing about how effeminate hipsters were ruining everything. Never mind that it was one of the best of the last decade. But no, even just a certain shade is a threat.

Who would have thought a genre so obsessed with overwrought fantasy stories and complete absurd over-the-top performative exercises of machismo and toughness would crumble so easily? The music itself has always been deliberately ridiculous; it does not have to jettison this absurdity to be taken seriously as an art form.

The weird thing is, as a far-reaching international community, metal is poised more uniquely than practically any other cultural force to break down those barriers. The aesthetic of metal itself makes it completely resistant to mainstream appropriation. It has a thriving, passionate subculture large enough to where it can continue to exist despite universal blackout from media.

Unlike other cultural products, metal music doesn’t rely on corporate products to develop a community. It thrives not in the mainstream, but in a thousand tiny scenes, each of them full of young people making the music and forming connections with each other. And because it is loud, and transgressive, and different, and celebrates its differences (and, ideally, celebrates the people who are different), it can never be made palatable for mass consumption.

Metal will never be truly popular or trendy, and the versions of it that become trendy are watered down fictions, mere pastiches of the real music being made by real people. And yet, in every corner of the globe, metal music is finding its way into the ears and hearts of millions of young people every day. It’s a beautiful and brilliant international community with the power to bring people from all walks of life together, shared in ritual and symbol like a new kind of religion.

For all its bluster about refusing conformity, this has always been the defining contradiction of metal culture. You must conform in your rebellion to rebel against conformity. Metal has a history, a series of traditions and expectations, and is something of an institution in itself. And like all institutions, even metal is not immune to the staunch traditionalists who insist that things must be done their way or not at all, that it must be stopped and preserved and protected from the heresies of “false metal”.

And even metal cannot continue to exist so beholden to its past and present.

Is there a future for metal? It’s hard to say. Some of the old, long-held bugbears of the metal traditionalists are going to have to change. Kids just aren’t picking up instruments as much anymore — and the ones who do are more likely to be young girls. Genres are blurring, too — the strict categorization and debate of what specifically marks the difference between blackened death metal and war metal and deathgrind isn’t going to matter as much, because these genres will become unrecognizable to what they are today.

Yes, there will be hip-hop or pop music influence in future metal bands. Yes, there will be young up-and-coming musicians who have never heard of Chuck Schuldiner. Yes, there will be pop singers and celebrities who mention how much they loved metal as kids. And that means that it may not be the same rebellious form it used to be.

And yes, metal’s popularity will wane, but it will grow again, as these cycles go, and there will still be new bands doing new things and taking the ethos of metal to incredible new heights.

And yes, some of you reading this right now will stop listening to it as much. And that’s okay. You’ll remember it fondly, not just as a “phase” but as a formative experience, as a community you were part of, as something that shaped your outlook on society and culture.

But what do I know? I don’t really listen to metal anymore.

Bad opinions about movies, worse opinions about politics.

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