Tuesday, December 20, 2011

If you're not in a band you're probably dumb as fuck

The title is inflammatory, but I couldn't think of a better way to phrase it. Buckle up; this is going to be a long one. And, of course, an abstract, difficult to follow one with probably few rewards at the end.

Metal is, at its heart (at least after punk's influence on thrash and styles thereafter,) a DIY genre. The most important impact that the DIY ethos has on a musical genre is that is massively lowers the bar necessary for people to get involved in the scene- and by involved in the scene, I mean on a deeper level than merely listening to the music. This can take many forms: being in a band, running a dumb tape/CDr distro, setting up shows, or even just writing self-indulgent screeds about bands no one's heard of on the internet. In other styles of music that don't possess the same degree of DIY ethos, some of these fields can be harder to break into; jazz sort of necessitates the live environment and a high degree of instrumental skill, classical demands collaboration in an academic or extremely restrictive professional environment, and so forth. Metal, on the other hand, needs a cheap guitar, a pirated copy of FLStudio, and too much time on one's hands. To extend beyond that: a metal label needs a grand and a decent starting album. Writing about metal simply requires the wherewithal to submit a bunch of Drudkh reviews to the Metal Archives. It's a fairly level playing field, all things considered, and if you're not taking part in any aspect of it beyond simply listening to the music... well, here's where things get contentious.

After a lot of years doing various stuff in the metal scene (playing in bands, running a label, writing a ton... I'm not a Renaissance man, just incredibly unfocused) I've come to look at those "mere listener" types with a grain of scorn that's admittedly unfair. It's not necessarily because I feel that these people need to "support the scene more"- hardly, if anything, I think the scene needs to be supported LESS, or at least in a very different way- as much as that, by not involving themselves in the more technical workings of the metal scene, they're given a very skewed, strange, rather one-dimensional look at the hows and whys of what goes on within the community. The title of this article is a false claim: you don't have to be in a band, but you need to do SOMETHING that establishes a more well-rounded look at the scene you're so ostensibly invested in.

(While I'm loathe to do it, I'll stop here and say that, yes, you can simply listen to and enjoy the music and have a realistic, concrete understanding of how the scene works. It's simply more challenging to get all the necessary perspectives and is probably a lot less fun for you in general. This is the only apologism I'll allow here, as just writing this much has already reduced my self-righteous erection to half-mast.)

Simply being a part of the community in some concrete way massively changes the way you see it, in ways that are both better and worse. It's much easier to see metal (or whatever your pet scene may be) as this holy, monolithic, sort of faceless entity that stands outside of the rest of culture when you're not involved in its workings. By getting more into it, you see the reality of it, and in many ways, get a more genuine appreciation and understanding of it: you can more accurately see the ways that it compares and contrasts to the mainstream. After spending about a decade in metal now, I've come to realize that, no, metal's not a divine presence that exists wholly on its own terms, but it does have enough distinguishing attributes to suggest that it's a rather different kind of animal from the others out there. Unfortunately, without playing in a shitty black metal band, you're unlikely to gain such an intimate and thorough understanding of things. Deena Weinstein in "Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture" refers to the metal scene as a bricolage- an entity composed of smaller modules that are at once independent and interrelated- and this is a pretty accurate portrayal of it. Delving into it might remove some of the magic, but if more did it, it would certainly cut down on the dumbest threads that clog metal forums all over the internet.

The most relevant example, and the one that perpetually frustrates me and inspired me to write this, is the massive, glaring misunderstanding of how musicians in the metal scene work- or, perhaps, musicians in general. Those who merely listen to different styles of music tend to believe that the social groups within the greater pantheon of "music" are striated purely along the lines of the genre, or in terms of mainstream vs. underground, when in actuality there's a million more ways that people are broken down and categorized than that. One of the largest is the "musician" social group: those that compose and play music of whatever genre. Relationships in any social group have a sort of default, baseline level of interaction and understanding, and, perhaps to the chagrin of the ignorant, it may come as a surprise to know that, as a metal musician, I immediately identify more and will be able to communicate more clearly with a fellow musician who plays wimpy folk rock than a metalhead who doesn't play instruments but listens to all the same bands as I.

Bruce Dickinson's son plays lead guitar and sings (I believe) in a melodic metalcore band. When this information hit the preening metal public, the overreaction and insane, judgmental logical leaps that occurred are without a doubt one of the most demented and inexplicable things I've seen in the metal scene. The outcry on metal forums across the web was at a fever pitch: people were actually decrying Dickinson's son, saying that he was somehow besmirching Iron Maiden, his father, and by extension, metal as a whole, for daring to play a more unacceptable style of heavy music. The truly mind-boggling posts, however, stated with unwavering certainty that Dickinson must be ashamed of his son for performing that style of music. We are dealing with people whose obsessive belief in these ultra-stratified, cultlike concepts of genre convince them that a father will disown his son for playing a different style of music than himself. Other examples of this sort of thinking are common: the perpetual, churning fury over Kerry King considering Slipknot a metal band, or dumbfounded angst over Slayer touring with Marilyn Manson, or any other indications that a metal musician is not properly obeying the unspoken guidelines of philosophical indentured servitude to the unquestionable, dogmatic entity of Metal.

Here's a few examples of bands I've played with:

-A retro death/thrash band from California
-A nu-metal band featuring a turntablist
-A crossover band from New York that sounded taken from the pages of Cryptic Slaughter
-A cybergrind band which featured only a guitarist, a vocalist, and an endless array of samples and electronic beats
-A band that was 75% bar rock, 25% Pantera, and composed entirely of members wearing Black Label Society shirts

It goes without saying that no project I've played in live has sounded even remotely like any of the above; I played melodic black metal with the nu-metal band and oppressive doom/death with the cybergrind project. At no point, though, were those distinctions relevant or even brought up between us, apart from in the form of jokes between members. These sorts of juxtapositions are legitimately ghastly to many of those who don't understand how the greater musical scene actually operates. Did I like the above bands? About 2.5/5. Did I, at any point, shudder with barely-restrained rage at sullying my black metal by playing with a band featuring a vocalist who insisted to the crowd, "When I say 'Fuck your' you say 'TV'?" Of course not. You know why? Because we lent a power cable to one of those guitarists, and they helped us load our amps into our van after the show was done, and we traded Myspace addresses and text messages- all things infinitely more important than following some scattershot concept of musical segregation established by those who've never picked up a guitar.

Another community that operates in a similar manner, though much smaller, is that of label and distro operators. Those people are part of the metal scene but exist in a realm completely different from the rest of it. People constantly ask why a label might release a certain album that's radically different from the rest of its discography, or why something was misprinted in a booklet- but because they've never been involved in the business, they have fundamentally never come in contact with many of the little things people on that side of the equation have encountered. Those who haven't taken part in it don't know these little abstractions: trying to arrange a pro CDr deal with Ukrainians whose broken English actually makes it harder to communicate than it would be if Pictionary was the operative language, figuring out which of five artwork revisions is the one that should be sent to the printer, or long nights on AIM talking to other label owners, taking shots at each other's releases in between organizing trade agreements. It is not that there's one thing or another that will answer the questions of how a label runs, but the sum of different feelings, thoughts, and experiences which give one an altogether different appreciation for what happens. Labels in the metal scene- even fairly large ones- are more often run out of bedrooms than offices, a distinction that seems to elude most of those who haven't given it a deeper look.

I'm not using this as a platform to suggest you play in a band or start a label or write a review (though of course you should,) but to illuminate the fact that, if you're simply listening to the music and not taking part in the process of it turning from an idea in one person's head to a CD in your player, you're more likely than not going to miss a fundamental part of the overall experience. You don't know how things work because you haven't been there, and while this isn't some sort of ethical deficiency, it does mean that you should be more willing to profess ignorance when such is the case. The next time you express incredulity at a collaboration between Satyricon and Joey Jordison, ask yourself: do I know anything about what the fuck I'm saying? Or are 14 year olds in Chicago telling me what to think?


  1. Well said. The casual listener perhaps has a view of the peripheral elements that compose a music scene, but nothing beats real experience. The last half of my life has been spent involved in bands, recording music, helping organize and promote shows, and it is without a doubt the most fun I have ever had legally, and I'm learning something, to boot. In this era, it's surprising more people don't get involved in their chosen scene, considering that it's notably easier to set up shows, promote, record, etc.

  2. No but seriously, fuck t.v.

  3. After having been involved in at least four different projects that fall within the grand scope of the 'metal' genre, I sometimes think people are better off for not even getting into a band in the first place.

  4. This is excellent and I agree with it, although you should fix the part where it says "I have played with" as it might give the impression that you played a role IN these bands (as I thought at first).

  5. Excellent post. It's definitely far from the case that the social and professional relationships between musicians neatly break down according to ideological notions of true vs. false, trendy vs. untrendy, etc., etc.

    I played in a thrash metal band for 3 years and have played music with all sorts of people for way longer than that. Back when I was playing metal there was a very tight relationship between all the bands in our little scene at the time. After a while some of those guys went on to do some musical projects that were not so "kosher" by the unwritten laws of true metal. But those guys are all still my brothers for a few reasons: (1) If you're an experienced musician, you can always relate to other musicians on that level; (2) We have become tight for some very real, tangible reasons (I let this guy borrow my amp when his broke down, he asked me to play lead when his band couldn't find another guy who could bust out that kind of stuff, we all threw down on 30 packs of shitty beers after the shows, etc., etc.); (3) They're just good friends, period.

    I mean, there has been a substantial amount of shit talking between musicians from my parts that definitely relate to these ideological distinctions, but at the end of the day, we're cool with each other on a basic level. Shit, I've played death metal with guys who are more into stuff like Swans. So yeah, it is a bit hard to take some of the uninformed internet true/false posturing very seriously. Admittedly, though, I've gotten a bit into some of these attitudes. But I haven't played music seriously in many years.

  6. I agree with the article. I may not understand the metal scene as a whole, but I'm fine with that. I would rather look at my metal as an entity like you stated and be blissfully unaware. I'm happy with it.

  7. wow ur rly advaneced and unelite

  8. I may well know those Ukrainians... :-)
    Read your review of Necro Ritual's PURE SATANIC SLAUGHTER on MA. Do you really think that of the whole UKBM scene? Skype me: pax_et_gloria
    (If I've understood anything about you from reading this blog, you might be in need of intelligent conversation with a someone who has a slightly different perspective on the same things.)

  9. on the contrary,going to shows and having to invest time,effort and money to be around a bunch of useless meatbags that enjoy playing dress up completely ruins music for me...for me music is much better experienced in solitude with either a descent stereo system or good pair of headphones