Answering “What is metal?” is a question akin to answering “How long is a piece of string?”. Well, sorta. Let’s amend that to “How long is a piece of string that has a tape measure attached to it?”. There’s definitely a hard end to the metal definition, it’s impossible to define things like death metal as anything else, but then there’s an increasing fuzziness as you go towards the glow of other genres and songs like Helter Skelter and bands like AC/DC find themselves in or around the gaping, hellish mouth of metaldom.
However, after several weeks of growing bacteria in petri dishes, standing behind one-way mirrors, placing test tubes in a whirly machine and running complex formulae through computer simulations, we have managed to deduce five things that only metal bands do.
Did your favourite band cut down a tree to make instruments? Yes? Then you’re a metalhead, and that’s one of 5 things only a metal band would do.
Boring! That’s what the people are saying, time and time again, about modern album covers. Utterly forgettable and immediately out of fashion artwork graces the vast majority of the inserts in physical albums these days. Sony Music, in particular, is very guilty of putting less than no effort into booklets.
Except for metal records. They’ve always got something interesting going on. Have a gander at, for instance, John Baizley’s work for his own band Baroness (Blue Record’s the best, see it below). Not only does he create super cool cover artwork for his own band, but he also has done for several other metal bands like Kvelertak, Torche, Pig Destroyer, and uh, Flight of the Conchords too.
It’s not just album artwork, either, the merch is generally pretty bonza too. Take, for instance, the Dillinger Escape Plan’s limited edition shirt supporting gay marriage; not only is it a funky ensemble piece, but it also manages a orgasmically rockabilly reference to one of, nay the best, moment in movie and Arnie history. (There was actually a lengthy hoo-ha about this all, but it resulted in even more excellent merch). Now, test this against any band you know. Let’s take Tame Impala and their new album Currents. Is the cover artwork good? No, it’s shite! Therefore, not a metal band.
If any other type of band sung a power ballad, it’d just be called a “song”. Not in metal, though. Metal bands are loud, brash, fast and all that sort of stuff. Power ballads are sweet, slow and a bit poppy. It’s a pretty sure sign that if a band is playing a power ballad then that band is a metal band, in the same way that a score in the 30s, a front foot LBW, and a wasted referral is a sure sign Shane Watson’s playing cricket.
Perhaps rather oddly, power ballads are pretty common, and it’s probably because no amount of screaming or drop-D riffing can silence the urge to unplug and sing about something sombre. On almost every metal album and every metal set, these power ballads can be found. One of the most famous songs of all time is a power ballad: Stairway to Heaven. But, everyone’s heard that tune, so perhaps listen to this belter to get a good idea what power ballading is all about, if the idea of metal going soft doesn’t compute.
Not all metal bands have unreadable logos. Inversely, all non-metal bands have logos that are quite legible. I bet some of you are outrageous and befuddled by this whole notion. “Why would a band go out and intentionally make their trademark – the incontrovertible link between the public and the business’ outward identity, inescapable in these modern marketing times – obscure?”, you’re screaming at the screen. “It behooves the band to indeed have a trademark that’s imperceptible; unless of course, the band seeks to attract listeners by positioning themselves as empathetic to the notion of outsidership…”. Say no more, you’re heard loud and clear.
However silly the whole idea may seem, unreadable logos do provide a fun game and a nice challenge. Let’s start off with an easy one, the logo of Swedish death metallers Unleashed, complete with an upside down crucifix. The font is caustic and super serif sharp, but the letters are there to be made out.
Stepping up the challenge a bit, how about this one? Two words, and it’s a phrase used a bit in English; first word, nine letters, begins with I; second word, four letters, begins with D. Strain those eyes and keep in mind it’s meant to be unreadable. See? It is fun, isn’t it. If you think you’re up to the challenge, you scallywag you, take the ultimate challenge, with no hints.* Ahh, deciphering unreadable band logos like this one below has that practical-fun element to it, like captchas or teasing young children.
Make their own instruments
Some bands write their own songs. Some bands record their music at home. Some bands do their own press, distribution and management. Some bands have their own private jet. Some bands even make their own instruments. Okay, well one has. But still, it’s a definite indicator of one’s metalness. No one else has done it.
Idahoan band The Ongoing Concept not only recorded their own album (Homemade), but they also made all the instruments used on it out of scratch; in one video guitarist Dawson Schulz says “We’ve gotta cut down that tree back there, because that’s our drumset”. Apart from all the nitty gritty electronic and mechanical stuff, the lads put together a drum set, a guitar and a bass guitar (as well as a keyboard stand, I imagine) by themselves. They literally chopped down some trees (Dawson wasn’t lying) and sawed and sand-papered guitar bodies, toms and a bass drum, as well as a few cabs.
Pretty cool, eh? It’s also cheaper to go through all this effort than to buy equipment, Dawson says in a pretty solid interview he had with Geargods. If only Dawson and The Ongoing Concept lads put a fraction of a thought into a good band name, they’d be household figures.
There’s no such thing as a ‘happy’ or ‘angry’ drunk apparently. Everyone, if they don’t pass out, vomit it up or can’t genuinely just keep on drinking, tends towards anger and violence the more they drink. And that’s much the same for metal bands, vis à vis keeping true and selling out. Every metal band does it, or will do it, like a sports coach has been sacked or will be sacked.
The whole process of going from being ‘kvlt’ to mainstream is pretty fraught. Sometimes metal bands truly sell out, like Metallica who released three (3) really shit albums, post-Black Album in the late 90s and early 00s, that pandered to the alternative crowd. Other times, the band just lowers their peg to something less extreme; actually, some metalheads bemoan the aforementioned Black Album as a sell-out when really Metallica were just less extreme than previous, and tacked on more than one power ballad to the album listing.
Reasonable fans might just accept the fact that playing music meant for the young isn’t something old people can do; and being the loyal follower metalheads are, many metal bands do stick around for ages and ages and ages. Mikael Åkerfeldt, 41, of Opeth, has basically given up growling because his larynx can’t handle it anymore. But, fact’s a fact. Whether rightly or wrongly, all metal bands sell out at some point. In fact, it’s the most metal thing they can do.
*The answers, by the way, were Impending Doom, a Christian deathcore band (no that’s not mutually exclusive) and the ultimate challenge is Finnish band Intracerebrally Consuming Cephalalgia Through the Cranium Macerating Debrisfucked Manure Ingested Remains of the Mindfucked Cataplexic Wicked Mankind Whom Fistfucked the Progenies from the Deepest Depths of the Analmaggot Raped Human Pieces of Erotic Shitmasses Which Gave Birth to Worthless Eunuchs as Travesty for Cumstained Whorefaced Sluts Enslaved by This Stupid Society Full of Fetal Garbages, otherwise known as 55Gore.