Shadow of the Horns: In defense of metal crossover appeal

Jeff Terich
Ghost Shadow of the Horns

Last year, 1,300 people signed a petition to force Sweden’s Ghost to break up. In a brief summary of Ghost’s supposed crimes against metal, the organizer of the petition stated, “They wish to destroy real metal with their carnival music nonsense.” The plea went on to discount any possible influence of the likes of Mercyful Fate on the band’s music, instead likening them to a watered-down Blue Oyster Cult. Yet while amusing, this petition obviously went nowhere; it fell short of its 10,000-signature goal, and Ghost’s label, Loma Vista, even poked fun at the stunt, tweeting a link to the petition with the comment, “Apathy is your only foe.” A little more than year after the petition launched, Ghost released their third album, Meliora, which is not only a very good metal/rock album, but one that continues to find the band worming their Satanic hooks into the mainstream. I bet that stuck in roughly 1,362 craws.

It’s both funny and sad that some metal fans get driven to lunacy because of a perceived threat to the purity of metal—as if such a thing even existed in the first place. Metal as a community has always been composed of outsiders—those whose experience doesn’t align with the mainstream, and who reject the conservative conventions that it dictates. But it’s also a community where it’s not uncommon to find people who are highly suspicious, if not outright disdainful of outsiders. It happens all the time, one of the most visible cases being when the theoretical, kind of pretentious band Liturgy (who are, in fact, really good, for the record) rubbed some metalheads the wrong way with their “transcendental black metal” theology and hipster appeal. I mean, I get the knee-jerk reaction, even if I don’t agree with it. But I also have to wonder if any of the naysayers who are so quick to judge a band like Liturgy would be less inclined to do so if it were music being made by crusty heshers or prog dorks than Columbia grad students. I’m not sure it would sound the same, but the point still stands.

So, it was no surprise the skeptics all came out to play once again when Deafheaven announced their new album New Bermuda. Back when Deafheaven released their sophomore album Sunbather in 2013, it was met with seemingly equal amounts of acclaim and aggravation, as its pink cover art, gorgeous post-rock touches and acclaim from critics who also liked Taylor Swift just didn’t square with those for whom metal is sacred. And thus, the Reddit comment gallery fired up their best jokes: “Daefhaeven announce new LP Feels So Obscure We Cry Abstract Art, featuring the hit single ‘I’m The Only Sad Guy On The Beach,'” said amusingly named user poopthrash. Though Deafheaven now has some competition from Internet shit-talkers now that Myrkur has released her excellent debut album, M. When Relapse Records shared an Instagram post about the Danish black metal artist, a civilized and highly intelligent gentleman named Fernandez declared that she had “no credibility whatsoever” because she played music other than metal and did some modeling work. (To which someone named chickenarise turned on the sirens for the credibility police—high five for that.) A lot of fans don’t like that Myrkur’s Amalie Bruun has played indie rock—not that there’s actually a birthright or rigorous selection process for who gets to play metal—and a few seem to take issue with the fact that she’s a woman. Another enlightening Reddit thread populated by Serious Talking People With Serious Opinions circle jerked that nobody would care about Myrkur if she weren’t a woman. I’m going to put a pin in that for now, because I’d like to talk about metal’s problem with sexist neanderthals, but that’s a pretty big topic and I’m not ready to tackle that just yet.

With the goofuses trying to get Ghost to break up, I can at least say that they listened to the music and determined they didn’t like it. Yet with the Deafheaven and Myrkur naysayers, it has more to do with marketing, which seems like a silly thing to get so worked up over. But more than that, if you’ll let me psychoanalyze for a moment, it’s the idea that interlopers are playing tourist in a realm that fans have spent the better part of their lives obsessing over. Mind you, I’m talking about a small but vocal group of people. I’ve met more people who enjoy Deafheaven and Myrkur’s music than I have people who feel the need to vocalize their objections. Not that anyone has to like anything; I’m not losing much sleep over the fact that people enjoy Purity Ring, for instance. But even getting past the irrational fear of seeing your community overrun with hipsters or bros—two things I have yet to see fully happen—is metal crossover appeal really a bad thing?

I dare say it isn’t. In fact, discovering metal always comes through hearing a crossover band of some kind. Certainly plenty of people have their first experience with Sabbath, or with Iron Maiden, or with Motorhead. And just about every metalhead can remember where they were the first time they heard Metallica, a band that’s basically the ultimate metal crossover band. They’ve recorded several albums that no self-respecting metalhead’s collection is complete without, but they’re also one of the most successful bands on the planet. “Enter Sandman” isn’t just one of the biggest metal singles of all time, it’s a song that rang out in countless households in the 1990s, and probably still does. And that means that the people listening to it weren’t just diehard metalheads—they were regular Joes and Janes, people that maybe didn’t know the first thing about thrash or doom or NWOBHM, but liked what they heard. And regardless of where Metallica went from there, it doesn’t render their earlier, stronger records by any means invalid or, to use the vernacular, “False.”

Look, metal’s been around for more than 40 years, it’s not going to die because a Vampire Weekend fan discovers Mercyful Fate (full disclosure: I like both of these bands). Metal’s a big enough community that there’s room for both those who like Deafheaven and those who don’t. But registering one’s online disgust with a band that’s not only very good at what they do, but have proven to be very successful at what they do, amounts to screaming into the void. If anything, I think metal could use a few more bands like Deafheaven. I’d rather see a community flourish than flounder, and if I can bond with somebody new about their discovery of a shared interest, then that’s a far more rewarding experience than trying to shut somebody out. 

The best metal tracks of August 2015

He Whose Ox is Gored – “Omega”

It seems only fitting, after a discussion on metal’s ability to appeal to an audience outside the already converted, to start off with maybe the catchiest track of the batch. “Omega,” the first track to be released from Seattle group He Whose Ox Is Gored’s new album The Camel The Lion The Child, is a potent blend of churning sludge metal riffs, ethereal keyboards that could have been plucked from early ’90s Swans records, a vocal bark that feels more hardcore than metal, and one of the strongest melodies I’ve heard in a metal song all year. This isn’t just a great metal track, it’s a fucking anthem, and not in the way that crusty metal tracks usually are. It has the heaviness, certainly, but it aims for something much broader and more eclectic than that. Metal is often at its best when it hits you from left field, and I can say with satisfied certainty that I didn’t see this one coming at all.

[from The Camel The Lion The Child, out Oct. 9; Bleeding Light]

Nightfell – “Rebirth”

Portland doom metal outfit Nightfell give the illusion of being a much older band than they are. I don’t mean that the actual musicians sound like they should have grandchildren, but that the recordings could have come from a time long before today. It’s mostly in the cloud of fuzz, and in the slushy snare sound they use—the vintage crunch is kind of charming, actually. But the music itself goes well beyond charm. There’s something genuinely exciting about the band’s raw power, coupled with a textural aesthetic that, while seemingly lo-fi in parts, shows a commitment to dark, soul-crushing doom that occasionally dabbles in blackened magicks and compulsory crust. It’s low-end wizardry that really hits the spot.

[from Darkness Evermore, out Sept. 9; 20 Buck Spin]

Black Breath – “Slaves Beyond Death”

The Southern Lord roster has undergone some interesting transitions over the last decade, once known for being an outpost for droning, sludgy acts like Boris and Sunn O))), to later almost exclusively releasing crust-punk albums, to becoming the epicenter for a sort of renaissance for classic thrash metal and death sounds. Black Breath has been at the helm of this renewal since 2010 or so, each time carving out more complex and nuanced arrangements from a framework pioneered by Slayer and Entombed. “Slaves Beyond Death” is much slower and more ominous than their usual death-and-roll piledriver, and as such reveals something a bit unexpected from the Seattle outfit. They’re just as menacing, just as harsh, but against a beat that’s a far cry from the usual d-beat gallop. Until it turns into that, which is fine too. They’re breathing new life into old-school hesher sounds, and it feels both comforting and invigorating.

[from Slaves Beyond Death, out Sept. 25; Southern Lord]

Kylesa – “Shaping the Southern Sky”

Kylesa have released two songs thus far from upcoming album Exhausting Fire. The first, “Lost and Confused,” was vintage Kylesa—slightly atmospheric, mysterious, and ultimately a beastly chugger of a metal song. But it wasn’t until “Shaping the Southern Sky” was released that I really got excited about their new album. Here, the band sheds some of the trademark percussive rumble in favor of a stoner-rock swing. Laura Pleasants takes lead vocals on this one, her reverb-addled delivery adding more intrigue to this gothic gallop than Philip Cope’s bark would have (not that he doesn’t kick ass when called upon to do so), and Kylesa hasn’t dropped a melody this good since 2010’s “Don’t Look Back.” It’s southern prog boogie that avoids any cliche such a thing tends to invite. But most of all, it simply rocks.

[from Exhausting Fire, out Oct. 2; Season of Mist]

Deafheaven – “Brought to the Water”

When Deafheaven released the relatively short (at six minutes long!) “From the Kettle Onto the Coil” last year, the San Francisco black metal group signaled a turn toward a harsher and more intense black metal sound. But not necessarily a classic one—the qualities that make Deafheaven special, and more than that, really fucking good, are the ones that set them apart as something different from what so many other black metal bands have already done. “Brought to the Water” isn’t an ordinary black metal song. It’s searing and guttural and dark, but it also harbors the melodic complexity of ’90s post-hardcore, the heroic guitar leads of classic heavy metal, and the dynamic density of shoegaze—not to mention a gentle piano outro. It’s a fitting direction for the band after the transcendent metalgaze of Sunbather, and finds them exploring different aspects of what’s already a pretty complex sound. Black metal’s a lot more interesting with Deafheaven around.

[from New Bermuda, out Oct. 2; Anti]

Piece by Piece

Recommended metal albums of August 2015.

Ghost‘s Meliora: It’s not a coincidence that Paul Pearson invoked both Satan and Paul McCartney in his review of Meliora on Treble. Ghost owes much of their career to both dark lords. Sure, they have the Satanic shtick down, but more impressive than that is their pop songwriting capability, which is particularly strong here. After the indulgent but somewhat lackluster Infestissumam, Meliora reclaims some of their spark and uses it to ignite some ripping ’70s rock with some light touches of prog here and there. Ghost has always been a classic rock band in metal clothing, but it doesn’t hurt that the clothing is ravishingly spooky. (Loma Vista)

Krallice‘s Ygg Huur: I don’t know what the title of this album means, though that’s sometimes the case with a band as inscrutable as Krallice. What’s most remarkable about the album, however, is that for what amounts to their shortest by a good half-hour or so, it’s still insanely complex and demanding of repeat listens. And those repeat listens are definitely rewarding (and brutal!). (Self-released)

Myrkur‘s M: Phony controversies aside, Amalie Bruun makes atmospheric black metal that’s both beautiful and harsh in equal measure, and does so without resorting to double-LP excess. M runs less than 40 minutes long, and some tracks barely cross the two-minute mark. What’s truly remarkable, however, is the way in which she applies the stunning melodies of dream pop and shoegaze to a black metal approach—notice I said melodies and not textures. For while plenty of bands have made black metal with a shoegaze feel, Myrkur’s actually got a knack for the hooks. Anyone can make black metal that sounds ugly; it’s much, much harder to make it beautiful. (Relapse)

Chelsea Wolfe‘s Abyss: Not a metal album exactly, but Chelsea Wolfe’s heavy darkwave sound incorporates a much greater doom metal and industrial influence than before, making it an album that’s pretty massive and crushing, even if it’s not technically metal. It’s Chelsea Wolfe’s best album to date, as well, so going heavier has definitely worked out in her favor. I’m a little heartbroken that she hasn’t booked a San Diego date on tour behind the album yet, but I understand: An artist who revels in darkness tends to shy away from a place where sunshine is year-round. (Sargent House)

*

I’m not writing about Baroness’ new song, “Chlorine & Wine,” mostly because it’s a hard rock ballad more so than a metal song. That being said, this is essentially the album left in 2015 that I’m looking forward to most (in addition to Deafheaven and Swans’ upcoming White Light from the Mouth of Infinity vinyl release). So it’s entirely possible, likely even, that you’ll find a new Baroness track in my favorite Horns jams of the month sometime this fall. They’ve said the new one is more of a rocker than Yellow and Green (which I loved), so I’m ready to let them rip.

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