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A Brief Commentary On Metal's Future


Last weekend a long-awaited event occurred – I finally saw Iced Earth live! It was at a club near downtown San Francisco, with perhaps 200 fans jammed into a small dark room in front of a waist-high stage. The setting was much like the one on the cover of Iron Maiden's Live +one EP – fans crowding the stage within an arm's reach of the band. I spent the entire set virtually close enough to touch rhythm guitar master Jon Schaffer, and even had the opportunity to chat with him afterward while he was putting away his gear. The whole show was an awesome experience, and even the Iron Maiden shows that I've seen in big arenas can't compare with the profound power, intensity, and intimacy of this small club gig. It was definitely the musical highlight of the year so far, yet it leaves me feeling somewhat sad that I didn't have the opportunity to see Iron Maiden in a similar small club setting. I would have virtually sold my soul to be able to stand a few feet away from Maiden during a gig, or to chat with them afterward. Perhaps I would have had the chance if they had not cancelled their last two San Francisco shows, but I suspect that for Iron Maiden the small club days are gone forever, one way or another.

And so I am left pondering the future, wondering if the days of small club gigs might soon be things of the past. All of the indications are that metal is poised to make a popular comeback. I don't only say this merely because the popular media is trumpeting it, but also because the feeling is the same as it was in 1980. As before, metal is virtually unknown in popular culture. Yet there are a number of extremely talented young bands who are beginning to gather momentum, bringing with them a sense of excitement and the feeling that something is about to happen. This is how it felt back then, and I sense that metal is about to rise again.

There are certainly advantages in the return of metal:

  • Iron Maiden might decide to hang around a bit longer and make a few more albums than they otherwise might have done.

  • There will be more young bands and new talent.

  • Talented bands will receive the respect and financial rewards that they deserve.

  • There will be more cool concerts to attend.

  • Maybe there might be something decent on the radio again.

  • Old collectibles will increase in value.

However, there are also plenty of drawbacks:

  • There will be poser bands and inevitable commercialization.

  • There will be less innovation in the genre – innovation is always highest when the artists aren't trying to follow a fad.

  • We'll be irritated by the herds of mindless cretins who will be metal fans simply because MTV says it's in fashion.

  • There won't be any more awesome club gigs, and the only way to see our favourite bands will be in big arenas.

I have definite mixed feelings about the possibility that metal is on the rise. Naturally the most important issue is the music itself, and in that sense it is somewhat irrelevant if it also happens to be popular. I listen to what I like, and that isn't likely to change. But apart from the music, I like being a part of an underground culture. When popular fashion demands a shaved head, I enjoy having hair down my back (fortunately I work for a company that values results much more than conformity of appearance). I want nothing to do with fashion – fashion is for the mindless MTV lemmings. It is said that any particular style will be in fashion at least once every 20 years, just as a stopped clock tells the correct time twice every day. That sort of stinks. On the other hand, I'd like to see my favourite musicians reap the reward that their hard work deserves. And it will give me a good chuckle when Metallica follows the trend and returns to playing metal again.

So, what will be the musical characteristics of the new wave of metal? We already see more diversity and innovation within the metal genre than ever before. A few veteran bands such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest are still recording and touring, while the torch of traditional power-metal is also being taken by new young bands such as Hammerfall. There is the progressive-metal branch, where bands such as Blind Guardian, Helloween, and Gamma Ray combine the best characteristics of power and speed metal. Black metal and death metal are bigger than ever before, and doom vocals are exploding across the metal spectrum. Some bands are so innovative that it's impossible to categorize them. For example, Therion's last two albums feature the combination of metal with operatic choral vocals (with real opera singers, not just some chick trying to sing opera), blurring the already thin line between metal and classical music and producing an effect that is hauntingly reminiscent of Mozart's death mass Requiem. I believe the only possible prediction about the metal of the future is that it will be incredibly diverse.

Even if metal becomes popular again, there are branches of metal that almost certainly will remain underground. Perhaps it will be possible to enjoy some of the benefits of both worlds. The whims of fashion never rest in one place for long, and we may as well enjoy the limelight for the fleeting moments that it lasts. So go and see Iced Earth in a small club while you still can – I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

17th May 1999

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