Monday, December 8, 2008

Bang Your Head Gently

This is an essay I wrote for school. It got a C+. 

      Bang Your Head Gently: 

      The Acceptance of Metal in the Indie Rock World 

Historically, the genres of metal and indie rock have had clear, distinct fanbases. Certain people like Slayer, certain people like the Smiths, and never the twain shall meet. However, in recent years, this divide has become less pronounced. A few genuine  metal bands have gained fervent followings among people who usually listen to much different music, the most prominent being Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan. While many artists in many different genres have had crossover success before, several things distinguish Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan from most others. 

One thing that is notable about these bands’ indie success is that they have done it without sacrificing their metal credibility. When Metallica cut their hair and released the huge MTV hit “Enter Sandman,” they alienated many of their fans. While they achieved greater mainstream popularity, they also turned a large segment of their older diehard fans against them. They thought the band had sold out, that they had started playing music that lacked the edge which had attracted them in the first place. This is not the case with Mastodon or the Dillinger Escape Plan. While their profile outside the realm of metal has increased, their credibility within it has not suffered. Metal magazine Decibel named Mastodon’s Blood Mountain the best album of 2006, and the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ire Works third best of 2007, with their J. Bennett describing it as, “tantamount to repeatedly beating one’s own world record in the 50-yard dash just to let the second- and third-place dudes know that they’ll never, ever catch up (ever).” Mastodon does inaccessible, stereotypically metal things like write a concept album about Moby Dick, and the Dillinger Escape Plan’s vocalist Greg Puciato breathes literal fire at the crowd during their concerts, which is shockingly dangerous and not for the faint of heart; in other words, totally metal. While these bands are known outside of the metal world, they are still very much part of it. 

Beyond anything else, though, what gives them their metal qualifications is their music. Mastodon is incredibly heavy. Their songs are packed full of riffs and almost prog rock, a la Rush, in their complexity. The drumming is fast, pulverizing and highly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, if John Bonham had a few extra limbs. Vocalist Brett Hinds’ primary form of expression is a roar. Pitchfork’s Jessica Suarez said of their song “Cut You Up With A Linoleum Knife,” “the title...speaks to both brutality and precision, the band’s two greatest assets.” The Dillinger Escape Plan are even more brutal and precise. Their songs are mind-bogglingly complicated, with outrageously fast and demanding drumming and guitar playing, and almost always played in bizarre, difficult-to-count time signatures. Puciato ranges from a falsetto croon to a raging scream. Both bands are unrelentingly abrasive, aggressive and intimidating. 

So why do people who normally don’t like metal like these bands? Why is there any overlap in fans between Mastodon and, for example, Vampire Weekend, who are arguably the most indicative of current trends in indie rock? Vampire Weekend plays preppy pop-rock with African influences. Their whole image is based around being wealthy, witty, Columbia-educated and good-looking. Their songs are catchy and playful. Clearly, they are extremely different than Mastodon or the Dillinger Escape Plan, and yet it is not unheard of to find all three bands on one person’s iPod.

Part of the answer relates, as do many trends in independent music, to Pitchfork. While there are many complaints against Pitchfork, including its writers’ at times patronizing attitude toward genres like metal (in fact, a blog tellingly titled “Hipsters Out Of Metal!” recently posted an entry mocking a Pitchfork review of the metal band Opeth, and a few days later posted links to new Mastodon videos), its influence on what becomes popular in indie circles cannot be denied. While it had previously never paid much attention to the genre beyond its infamous review of Metallica’s St. Anger, in 2006, Pitchfork started writing about metal in earnest. The metal band it championed above all others was Mastodon, giving Blood Mountain an 8.7 out of 10 and placing it at number 42 on its year-end list. Other typically indie-oriented critics like The Onion A.V. Club also threw their support behind the album, and even The New York Times called it “a strong record by a powerful band nearing an ideal of cohesion.” This sort of support from trusted critics led to a willingness to give Mastodon a chance that most indie fans probably would not have given them otherwise. 

Another element that may have contributed to the greater acceptance of these bands relates to the relationship between metal and hardcore punk. While there are similarities between the two genres, including aggression, speed, and iconoclasm, they are undeniably, defiantly separate. While modern punk and indie are separate, what is now known as “indie” evolved out of hardcore in the 80s, from bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du. Thus, there is almost no metal influence on indie. They are entirely different genres, with different aims, the most notable being that punk and indie traditionally place very little emphasis on technical proficiency, which is a key component of metal. What sets Mastodon and especially the Dillinger Escape Plan apart from other metal bands is their integration of punk influences and indie aesthetics into their decidedly metal tendencies. Aside from Brett Hinds’ facial tattoos, the members of these bands do not look like stereotypical metal musicians. In fact, they would not look out of place walking down Bedford Avenue. The bands’ album covers are tasteful and artistic, and stay away from classic metal designs like skulls and pointy fonts. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s music, aside from the technical aspect, owes just as much to hardcore as it does to metal. Their songs are structured more like punk songs, favoring verse-chorus-verse over the long, suite-like approach frequently used in metal. Their lyrics usually deal with relationships. They have also collaborated with Mike Patton, the former singer of Faith No More, who is a unifying figure in independent music, having worked with everyone from the Melvins to Norah Jones. Both bands also have pop elements that earn them some detractors in metal but make them more palatable to to non-metal listeners. Mastodon will occasionally break down into semi-acoustic passages, while the Dillinger Escape Plan has a song that Decibel favorably compared to Justin Timberlake, with its catchy chorus and poppy vocal inflections.

The influence of metal on indie has not been game-changing, but it is growing. Besides Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan, other metal bands have been embraced, including Gojira, a French death metal band that sings about global warming, and Krallice, a Brooklyn black metal band led by the versatile Mick Barr. Pitchfork now regularly covers metal bands and even has a monthly metal column called Show No Mercy. Mastodon has toured with indie stalwarts Cursive. I recently attended a concert featuring noise bands like Lightning Bolt and Growing, as well as Krallice. Metal’s influence has taken an interestingly winding path, moving from one part of the underground to another. Now, any Mastodon show will have just as many people with skinny jeans as long hair. There is a Metallica fan in every town in the country. Metal has become a cultural force, and it gets more forceful every year.

Mastodon - Crystal Skull (Mediafire) 

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Sunshine the Werewolf