Can Metal Still Be Mainstream?


Metal is arguably more popular than it’s ever been. One of the main reasons for the genre’s widespread popularity is the staggering amount of diverse sub-genres on offer all under the general ‘metal’ heading. These days, there’s something for everyone (don’t like blackened progressive gore-grind? That’s fine, maybe post-stoner/doomcore will fit your taste) and this can only be a good thing. However, while metal may have been accepted into the mainstream consciousness as a generalised concept, a noticeable result of this ever-increasing emphasis on specialisation is that fewer and fewer metal bands are able to find themselves purchase within the broader mainstream music culture.

It seems like it’s been forever since a metal band has truly crossed over to the mainstream—with Slipknot seemingly being the last major example. There are numerous reasons why this might be the case, including drastic changes in the way the music industry is structured, and the way that fans both experience and interact with bands and artists. Yet, there also appears to be two curious and seemingly parallel phenomenons, which are likely having a major influence on this state of affairs; the first being the continued expansion and specialisation of the heavy metal genre within itself and the second being the compounding of this effect by a mainstream that is shifting ever-further away from rock n’ roll-based music.


When heavy metal first came about in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it did so by taking the popular rock’n’roll aesthetic of the time and pushing it in harder and heavier directions. The members of Black Sabbath and Motörhead have continually claimed The Beatles as their greatest influence, and those bands went on to influence the next generation of hard rock and metal bands, which included such notable acts as Metallica, Guns n’ Roses, and Iron Maiden, who you might recognise as some of the most well-known and successful acts of all time—not just within metal, but within popular music as a whole. Yet, if we look at which bands from the contemporary metal scene are making an impact on the popular consciousness, we find that many of these bands have little to do with the genre’s rock n’ roll heritage.


Bring Me The Horizon appear to be the biggest and most obvious example—and a deserving one at that. From their inception, the UK act have continually experimented with and evolved their sound, often pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re most comfortable occupying at the time, and are now at the point where they’re selling-out arenas across the globe and doing shows with orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall. However, while Bring Me The Horizon might be one of the most interesting and important bands working in the wider heavy music scene today, they have little to do with rock music, and never really have. Bring Me The Horizon started out as a deathcore band—a genre which merges elements of death metal and hardcore punk—before progressing through various stages where they experimented with their post-hardcore, alternative, metalcore and even nu-metal-influences.


None of these genres—although all derivatives of classic rock and metal—contains or emphasises the words “rock” and/or “roll.” While labels are to an extent meaningless and implicit, none of these genres really emphasis the traditional rock and/or metal aspects of their sound either; and what Bring Me The Horizon have eventually wound up being  is a largely electronic-based pop act. Furthermore, on their most recent tours—the ones where they’re selling out stadiums and arenas—the band have eschewed material from all but their last two albums, which are decidedly the least ‘metal’ of their output, while simultaneously focusing on the softer, more pop-oriented material from their newer releases. This isn’t an indictment on Bring Me The Horizon as a band themselves. I’m a big fan of the band and have been ever since Suicide Season (2008), and I certainly think that what they’re doing is a lot more interesting than much of what many more-traditionally-inclined metal acts have been putting out of late. However, while their status as a ‘metal’ band has always been dubious to some extent, it’s safe to say that —in their current form at least—the band are hardly representative of the heavy metal genre as a whole, even if they also currently appear to be the scene’s biggest export.


It also appears that those traditionally-inclined bands who do rise to the top of the pile are no longer the best and most exciting examples of their form. Along with Bring Me The Horizon, Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch seem to be the two modern metal acts who have broken—to some degree—into the mainstream. Whatever your opinion on the quality of these band’s output, neither could be accurately described as either ‘extreme’ or ‘progressive’. This might seem an obvious conclusion, with the success of Bring Me The Horizon being the exception rather than the rule. Yet, if we look back at the breakthrough bands from previous eras (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Tool, Slipknot, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine— hell, even Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe) we see that these bands were not only the most popular, but also wildly original and also often the most important bands in their respective movements.


If anything, Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch have achieved their popular status by reigning in the more confronting elements of their sound, and merely emulating proven popular forms—especially in the case of Avenged Sevenfold, who first really broke when they abandoned their original metalcore sound in favour of a more traditional metal / hard-rock direction. When Avenged Sevenfold released their most recent album Hail To The King (2013)—which shares many similarities with Metallica’s Black Album (1991), and even seems to consciously imitate it (among others) on more than one occasion—it received mixed reviews and is generally seen as a lesser release in the band’s catalogue, even if it proved commercially successful. Even, if we accept Hail To The King as a ‘good’ album, it’s hardly the heaviest or most adventurous of their releases.

Conversely, while there were plenty of thrash metal fans who decried The Black Album as ‘simplified’ and ‘radio friendly’ upon its release (and there still are to this day), The Black Album also remains not only one of Metallica’s heaviest releases, but also one of their best. There really wasn’t anything like it at the time, and—as much as it spawned many imitators—there still isn’t really anything like it to this day. It also isn’t an isolated case. Again, looking back at the previous wave of popular hard rock and metal bands, we find that often the most interesting and extreme material was also the most successful. Linkin Park and Disturbed’s most successful albums remain the earliest and most aggressive of their material and the same with bands like Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and The Smashing Pumpkins. The fact that bands as complex and confronting as Slipknot (who also fall into the former category), Nirvana, Tool, and even Rammstein have achieved any degree of mainstream acceptance, let alone risen to the top of the pile, is perplexing all on its own.


While the two situations described above might seem paradoxical on the surface—Bring Me The Horizon achieving mainstream success by realigning themselves with a distinctly non-metal aesthetic while Avenged Sevenfold found the same through emulating traditional hard rock and metal formulas—each example shares a notable characteristic. In each case, a band who were already successful within metal circles, found mainstream acceptance by lessening the more challenging and extreme aspects of their sound.

Please don’t read this as any sort of treatise on ‘selling out’ or a condemnation of music’s less-extreme genre’s – it’s not. Music should be about acceptance, and fans of these bands are no lesser for liking them, nor are the bands themselves and their music any less valid for being less challenging and less extreme in their approach. However, the fact remains that there used to be a place for those truly progressive, and undeniably heavy, bands to exist within the mainstream, alongside the kinds of examples given here, and often it was these bands which proved the most endearing acts of their respective eras—precisely because of their eccentric and more aggressive musical take. Unfortunately, in its current state, the mainstream no longer seems to have a place for these artists, and it seems unlikely that it ever will again.


About Joshua Bulleid

Joshua Bulleid lives in Melbourne and enjoys reading books with spaceships and robots in them. He also likes death metal.

View all posts by Joshua Bulleid

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