Heavy metal still gold mine inside world of rock music

06.05.2008
So, how does it feel, music fan, to be in the middle of the summer of metal? Loud enough for you? Bands such as 3 Doors Down and Staind get as much radio airplay as teen pop. Linkin Park and Korn have just set off on the highly anticipated Projekt Revolution tour with an unlikely associate, rapper Snoop Dogg.
The Ozzfest tour is selling big in most venues, according to promoters. And it's not just the metal dinosaurs — Black Sabbath is headlining — who are drawing fans to the annual heavy metal festival.

Newer bands such as Lamb of God (an "extreme metal" band from Richmond that signed a major-label deal last year), Unearth and Every Time I Die are attracting young metalheads, too.

Ozzfest is flourishing in a soft summer market, while Lollapalooza, the alt-rock revue that had critics in a lather of anticipation, tanked ignominiously due to poor ticket sales.

Heavy metal may not inspire critical hosannas, but it has something the niche bands of indie rock do not: mass popularity. Traditionally, it has appealed to disaffected, young suburban and rural white guys, whereas punk music, the inspiration for many indie rock bands, was more of a soundtrack to urban disaffection.

Whatever the source of unrest, metal remains a trusty emotional safety valve.

"Detuned power chords and lyrics that scream alienation have fueled the platinum sounds of almost every major band of the past two decades, from Nirvana, Metallica and Soundgarden to Linkin Park, Story of the Year and In Flames," writes Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski.

"It's very alive," says Joe Berlinger, the co-director of "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," a documentary, in select theaters today, about the veteran metal outfit Metallica.

He and filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky aren't fans particularly of metal. They befriended the band while making "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," a 1996 documentary about the trial of three small-town Arkansas teenagers accused of triple murder.

"The evidence that the prosecutors came up with is that these kids listened to Metallica and wore black shirts," Mr. Berlinger charges.

Working formally with Metallica, they tracked the band for two years (from March 2001 to August 2003). "We went to Oslo to Berlin to Bologna and all throughout America," Mr. Berlinger says, marveling that the band can draw up to 100,000 fans in some markets.

Metallica's most recent album, "St. Anger," debuted at No. 1 in 30 countries, including the United States.

Non-metalheads may not have noticed the butt kicking this summer. Part of that is because the thumb suckers who are crying over the demise of Lollapalooza (headliner Morrissey must really hate us Americans now) can't bear to bring you the news: Concertgoers are more excited about Judas Priest and Slayer than about (insert your favorite indie-rock band here).

It's not entirely the fault of the rock elitists, however. Bands such as Kiss and Poison, which appeared jointly at Nissan Pavilion last weekend, have made a running popular joke of metal. You know: the hairspray, the spandex, the cheesy songs, the shtick.

To paraphrase Jon Bon Jovi — speaking of jokes — they give metal a bad name.

Serious metal bands are by nature outsiders and anti-establishment. (Take a look at heavy metal press outlets such as Metal Hammer magazine and the Web site Blistering.com to see what I mean.) Meanwhile, Christian metal bands such as P.O.D. occupy an alternative corner of their own.

To see how warily metalheads view the mainstream, check out a volume-speaking little scene in the "Metallica" movie.

The Bay Area headbangers are arguing in a recording studio about guitar solos. The consensus is that traditional six-string heroics are outmoded. Kirk Hammett, Metallica's speed-demon lead guitarist, mostly agrees, but has a hunch. His band mates might be caving to the tastemakers.

Mr. Hammett doesn't explicitly mention it, but it's clear what he has in mind: the trendy minimalism of such garage revival bands as the Strokes and the White Stripes.

"They don't talk about it in those terms, but the entire movie is about how [Metallica] stays relevant in a game they largely invented," Mr. Berlinger says.

It's natural for any entertainer who's been active for 20 or more years to fret about relevance. But think of the subdivided scheme that a band like Metallica must fit into today: a genre it more or less pioneered that has family-treed into alt-metal, nu-metal, rap-metal, rapcore, black metal, funk metal, Christian thrash and other offshoots.

Amazingly for a genre so segmented, metal thrives. With the exception of the radio-hogging nu-metalists such as Limp Bizkit and Three Days Grace, most metal acts are as indifferent, or downright hostile, to the mainstream as indie-rock bands are.

Yet they're able to reach far larger audiences than softer-sounding bands with similar attitudes.
Take the corpse-painted Iowans of Slipknot, who achieved notoriety mostly through word-of-mouth raves about their live performances.

Slipknot's third LP, "Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verse," debuted last spring at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, with first-week sales of more than 240,000.

True, many metal acts remain on the fringe. Scandinavian metal bands such as Opeth are a gloomy cult phenomenon, but even that might be changing. Dimmu Borgir, a Norwegian import playing the Ozzfest mainstage, is a breakthrough threat.

Perhaps the only thing that can defeat metal are metalheads themselves.

One of the shocks of Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky's "Metallica" is how heavily the band relied on the counsel of a "performance enhancement coach," which is jargon for "therapist."

"I check out Metallica Web sites to see what fans are saying about the movie," Mr. Berlinger says. "Most are digging it, but 10 to 15 percent are like, 'What wimps.' "

"We're seeing the soft white underbelly of the beast," he adds, calling metal "the most image-conscious and testosterone-laden of all the kinds of music there is."

If heavy metal can survive therapy, it can survive anything.

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