Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Cyclic Existence of Heavy Music - Part III, Full Circle

The nineties was the last decade that regular music video rotation would make or break a band. That same power directly influenced consumer decisions and he who controlled the spice video, controlled purchase decisions. Music video purveyors Music Television, better known as MTV, controlled the majority share during that era. Just below the attention of mainstream the underground scene changed by coming to terms with the fact that nobody in mainstream media likes them. It's not that the scene ever cared if mainstream showed love, but it helped to stop pretending that one day the rest of the world will realize what kind of awesome-sauce heavy music is and the nay-sayers are just super poopy pants for not listening to it to begin with. With the apex of the eighties long gone and remembrance of when the majors cavorted with metal a distant memory; the pretense of metal being a superior form of music shed it's skin to reveal a humble scene ready to write new music freed of mainstream expectations.

Metal's awkward teen years were dragged out into the public eye in music videos. We had eighties survivors Guns N' Roses putting out "User Your Illusion I & II" along with a prominent soundtrack slot on 1991's summer action blockbuster "Terminator 2: Judgement Day". The featured song You Could Be Mine carried over into 1992 and was performed live at the MTV Video Music Awards where Metallica won the Best Metal/Hard Rock category with Enter Sandman off of their heralded/hated self titled fifth studio record which came to be known as the black album. The growing pains in visual media continued with Mike Judge's Beavis and Butthead as the archetypal shit sippers of metal fans wrapping metal videos around subtle social commentary. Headbanger's ball once a flagship show for MTV that demanded a three hour time slot felt the squeeze of alternative forcing its abrupt cancellation in the mid nineties. The combination of video and media dissemination along with quick fanfare exploit were the genesis of viral music marketing.

Metal wasn't completely out of national distribution during the waves of alternative and other mainstream heavy(er) music. Once upon a short time ago where heavy music carved out it's niche existence through indie labels, those operations have since grown into respectable smaller national labels and some becoming or newly launching as major label subsidiaries. I am about to start listing bands and I know that some of you will have your feelings hurt for not having your favorite band listed but keep in mind that this is about the cyclic existence of heavy music, not a chronological evolution of your favoritest band everz.

Pantera's 1990 release "Cowboys From Hell" showed the nineties that metal was't completely dead with Dimebag Darrell's badass solos while Rex Brown lays down some mean bass lines. Other brother Vinnie Paul with solid yet imaginitive drums and Phil Anselmo being Phil: mean sounding mother fu#&er. Machine Head started the Power Metal genre with 91's "Burn My Eyes" on Roadrunner records while Ministry released "Psalm69" that will go unnoticed until Beavis and Butthead airs the video for NWO two years later. Fear Factory's '92 debut "Soul of a New Machine" hits the scene, forever changing the standard for double bass and '93 had Sepultura release their third studio record "Chaos A.D." which was the first departure from their typical thrash sound. Mid nineties were busy years for Cannibal Corpse starting with a cameo on the '94 Jim Carey vehicle "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" than in '95 Bob Dole naming them among a few other artists for, "undermining the national character of the United States". In '96 a quorum made up of Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Nunn along with activists William Bennet and C. Delores Tucker urged record labels to drop twenty artists that included Cannibal Corpse, citing them as having the most offensive lyrics. A testament to the DIY ethic of the hay day, Deftones managed to sell 220,000 copies of their '95 debut "Aderenaline" with absolutely no radio or video support through tireless touring and internet promotion along with good old fashioned scene word-of-mouth. Heavy music continued releasing records by bands that will retrospectively change the way heavy music will be played and viewed, but in the mean time we have to accept that during this era that metal is a joke thanks to embarrassments like Metallica suing Napster. Mind you, it's not that musicians standing up for revenue rights that's the issue, it's the way it was done (and Lars' whiny bitching did not help the cause).

Between alternative's dominance of music dissemination and consumer pockets, the major labels began to sign heavier acts after Metallica's commercialization demonstrated heavy music's sustainability in the market. Alternative's fringe existence had Faith No More's '89 release "The Real Thing" that went unnoticed until extensive video rotation for the single Epic in 1990 while Nine Inch Nails received a similar boost for video rotation off of "Pretty Hate Machine". 1992 brought Rage Against The Machine's politically infused rap/metal self titled debut which went triple platinum and Helmet releases "Meantime" to a very accepting audience considering the genre. Tool's acclaimed '93 release "Undertow" spawned controversy with their single's subject matter that broadened their audience, earning them a bump from second to main stage during the third Lollapalooza tour. This is the 'metal' that MTV fed the populous and were told as gospel to the masses that this is what we should buy and listen to. It's so obvious now how we all drank the kool-aid back then but seeing those videos among all the mainstream music, it felt like it was fighting back against popular culture.

It was those fringe major label bands in the early nineties that are commonly noted and blamed for setting the path to 94's Immortal/Epic signing of Korn and the self titled release that has been attributed with the birth of nu-metal. After their initial lukewarm reception Korn toured tirelessly and garnered radio spins and video rotation. Korn was the inertia to the nu-metal domino giving labels a push to sign competing bands such as Limp Bizkit (god damn you Fred Durst) who begat Staind (Be sad about everything) and so on. I confess that I still have a soft spot for Korn's first record but I guess it's like all of those stories that end with , "you had to of been there". When their first record came out there was nothing like it and it was refreshing to have something so heavy but capable of surviving in the mainstream, it was hope to a dying genre of music back then (keep in mind it wasn't called or considered nu-metal yet).

Contempt for nu-metal built up throughout the nineties when it was cast out like a heretic. Branded inauthentic less than a decade after it's inception by the very scene that bred it despite giving way to heavy music's acceptance that we see today. Those that are turning their nose up may not want to hold themselves accountable for it but it's true, Korn's first tour was with Biohazard and their follow up tour with Sick of It All. Next time you want to point fingers on who's fault nu-metal is, start with a mirror.

Mainstream sales and marketing of nu-metal continued into early 2000's culminating with Evanescence receiving two Grammys and Linkin Park's debut record "Hybrid Theory" certified Diamond by RIAA for sales over ten million copies. Those of you that say you NEVER liked them even a little bit is the same liar-liar-pants-on-fire who also said that you didn't like NKOTB, but secretly had a poster on your closet door. It's OK, I won't judge you.....much. Considering the current trend for eighties metal nostalgia one can extrapolate the trend to a resurgence of 90's top 40 rock, but than again the songs haven't left radio thanks to the alternative radio format as well as satellite radio already having dedicated stations to the nineties. My youth's worst nightmare is coming true where I find myself yelling, "what the f is this sh!t" at the radio and the songs I grew up with are being aired as classics on some stations. Mark my prediction: nostalgia format for rock and metal that span eighties to nineties.

While mass media pushed nu-metal and alternative the underground scene did what it once thought was impossible, the wall between hardcore and metal came down. Where the two genres were sworn enemies vowing never to mix, we began to see mixed genres on the same show and even going as far as combining aesthetics of each genre into a single song (gasp you say, I know!) to what will eventually be known as metalcore. It's like Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler sitting down for dinner with Jesus and Buddha, or interspecies porn with uncomfortable looking creatures (think porcupines, jellyfish and you). Where California was home to the frontier of punk last time, the evolution of the genres happened on the east coast in the rather out-there Western Massachusetts scene.

Western Mass has it's charms despite it's already weird existence far removed from any major civilization with Boston a two hour drive and NYC a further four to six hour drive. Northampton had the Pearl St. night club that booked locals as well as nationals in a larger club venue. Hadley had Katrina's on Rt. 9, but when that closed the scene moved to Infinity's (The Fin!) in Springfield. When the Fin closed it's doors it was another move over to Fat Cat's Bar and Grill on Worthington street in downtown Springfield. Fat Cat's decided that the heavy shows were an insurance and safety liability (because house music, hip hop, and wanna be gangstas from Springfield aren't) and it was yet another move over to The Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke.

Shows cropped up at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls with Greedy Edna and Greenfield's old theaters with Under Falling Skies while Northampton's own industrial/metal Collapse Into Reason booked non-traditional venues such as goth clubs. Springfield became the home to all of the scene's bands but many started out of there such as Shoot the Dancing Bear, edgar, and Aftershock to name a few. 6thirty7 and All That Remains called the basement and hall shows of Holyoke home. The scene extended into the border towns in Connecticut where we had Simple, Grey Cell Green, and Still Life showing how it's done in CT at Webster Theater as well as many bars and clubs that promoted local artists. Mike Haze at 97.9 FM out of Northampton and the WCCC crew at 106.9 out of CT were the first radio stations that would play local music that went onto change heavy music.

Band members from various projects hanging out with one another sharing ideas and forming side or new projects promoted growth. Phil's exit from Shadows Fall resulted in the formation of All That Remains and Adam and splitting away from him and his brother's band Aftershock eventually formed Killswitch Engage. Slo from 6thirty7 will go on to play guitar for Unearth and Scott Lee who never played but was a huge proponent for supporting and booking in the scene went onto start Metalfest and to book for Mass Concerts. After the main stream silence of heavy music, all of the pieces within the Western Mass scene were in place and it would begin with Shadows Fall's signing to Century Media.

As it is said so often in recounting history that something was the start, Shadows Fall was only the tip of the iceberg that is the Western MA scene. They spent years playing locally as well as branching out regionally through tireless self promotion and self release of their records on guitarist Matt's indie label Lifeless Records. It was hard work and good music that got the attention of indie metal labels. Once Shadows Fall was signed, the metalcore cat was out of the bag and soon after Killswitch Engage followed. Those two bands spread metalcore nationally though constant touring and set the stage for the next round of bands to be signed. Soon after we saw Lamb of God out of Virginia and That Remains out of Springfield MA signed to Prosthetic records.

Metalcore began to see commercial success with the same help it once received, video rotation and movie sound tracks. The only difference is that it wasn't MTV that dictated your purchase but YouTube and free will (albeit great marketing). With mainstream insertion of an underground sound the once indie bands were soon being tracked on Billboard charts. The mainstream attention would have those same bands nominated for Grammys and all of this begins the cycle of commercial acceptance and success of heavy music. That's right, metal is back bitches.

It was refreshing to have new material to listen to after the metal drought but the competitive nature of the record industry will force labels be the death of metal again. It's a catch 22 that without competition there is no way to gauge the value of a product, but an over saturated market dilutes the product's brand and value. Labels will sign band after band putting out records by varying artists with mixed results. It became a land grab of the genre and you start to see labels formed tailored to the genre or a label converting to the genre. Soon the identity of metalcore will be lost and become as generic as calling all heavy music metalcore instead of metal. Where once we had the pretty definitive Big 4 in the 80's, it may simply be too soon to say who the progenitors are but those bands that began the wave of metalcore will continue on while the gazillion metalcore bands we now have will only serve to destroy the scene again never to see the success promised by the mainstream pipe dream.

So now we come full circle where we have too many of the same thing and not enough change. While metalcore rang in the era of being able to play your instruments again where nu-metal just had caveman riffs, the evolution of heavy music continues with bands like Animals as Leaders who forsake vocals to deliver music virtuosity on eight string guitars. We are hearing less and less screams in music as it is becoming a tired out sound already and giving creed to people who can actually sing again. It's time for music apoptosis again and I for one look forward to the death of metalcore and will not mourn a second of it as I will be too busy looking forward to what music tomorrow will bring.

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