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NPR and Pitchfork: Putting their Best Metal of 2011 lists in perspective

January 17, 2012

The generous view on year-end/best-of lists of bloggers or websites is that they are often an exercise in an earnest, optimistic type of narcissism. I’ve done one myself, so I’m not guiltless in that aspect — but I’ve begun to realize that most of the lists currently being published are also exercises in varying, and scalable degrees of exclusionism. I say this because in the past two years major non-metal/indie oriented media outlets have taken it upon themselves to declare to their reading audiences what is the Best Metal of the Year. I’m referring to websites such as NPR, Pitchfork Media, Spin, PopMatters, Stereogum, Noisecreep, Frontier Psychiatrist, etc (just do a google search for “Best Metal of 2011″ where you’ll see a good portion of these on the first page of search results). There are countless other minor non-metal oriented blogs and sites that have their own list up as well, and they all pretty much loosely mirror one of the examples posted above.

This is a curiously new phenomenon: ten, seven, even six or five years ago you wouldn’t find non-metal/indie media daring to touch the very idea of the “best metal” released in those years. The cynic in me wants to ask, “Did the hipsters get tired of all the garage-rock bands ironically limping around Brooklyn?” That is mean spirited I know, but part of me does wonder, how long will this new found interest last? First let me offer this: I am not attempting to argue that these sites have no business publishing best of metal year end lists, nor am I attempting to critically analyze their selections. Each of the writers of these lists have their own tastes, preferences, and the right to promote them…but after mulling these lists over for a few weeks and listening to most of the albums on them, one thing has become very clear to me: The most popular of these lists are created by a handful of very prolific writers/bloggers, and the rest stem from the templates laid out by said writers. In particular, the highly read and discussed lists from NPR’s Lars Gotrich and Pitchfork/Stereogum’s Brandon Stosuy are parroted throughout the blogosphere. In deserving respect to these two writers, they both offer their opinions with interesting takes and lucid arguments. I enjoy reading their stuff, and dislike having to single them out — however due to their popularity, I feel they are liable to be held to a higher standard.

Without delving too deeply into Gotrich and Stosuy’s lists, the most obviously striking things about them both is that they tend to lean heavily on the new crop of post-black metal bands. There are occasional death metal albums sprinkled throughout, the odd doom record, and a good bit of math-metal (I hate that label but its what everyone uses). Okay fine, I actually like a few of their selections as well, but here’s a question: Aren’t we missing something in terms of various other styles of metal? You’ll notice that traditional metal and power metal are noticeably absent from these lists. Gotrich’s 2010 list was even more narrowed down to include ambient and noise records alongside new post-black metal releases. I have no problem with Agalloch’s excellent Marrow of the Spirit taking the number one spot, but where on the list were the then new and stunningly great albums by Blind Guardian and Accept? These were widely acknowledged as some of the most brilliant work by either band, and both came as surprises completely out of the blue. In his 2011 list, Gotrich misses out on the masterful Iconoclast by Symphony X, a ferocious album that has won them more believers than anything else in their catalog. How about the woefully underrated Faroese trad-meets-folk metallers Týr and their fantastic new record The Lay Of Thrym? I could go on and on, and apply the same misses to Stosuy’s lists for 2010 and 2011. (And while we’re on the subject of black metal, how do both of these guys miss Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini as well as the 2011’s excellent Taake release Noregs Vaapen, and Burzum’s defiant, shifting Fallen?)

This is a little too grim for us...

It should be all too clear by now that Gotrich and Stosuy do not like traditional or power metal at all. To such a degree that they will willingly ignore popular, widely lauded albums that fall into those styles. To each his own right? Yes. But here’s my problem: these are two very influential writers. Their opinions as mentioned before are parroted around the web, and frankly, that’s where a lot of this type of discussion takes place. What concerns me is that these lists are being trotted out for readers and listeners not already familiar with metal in general. What Gotrich and Stosuy present to these types of audiences is a mere sliver of the many styles of metal that are actually available out there. An NPR listener might actually be capable of being interested in metal that is delivered with a clean, melodic vocalist, or be able to enjoy a record that isn’t washed out in synths and shoegaze influences (cheap shot I know). There are plenty of bands who put out quality releases that this hypothetical person could enjoy, but they might never know about them.

It may only be semantics, but I’d feel a little less agitated about Gotrich’s list if it wasn’t simply titled “The Best Metal of 2011″. What should it be called? I don’t know exactly, perhaps throw in the word “extreme”, as in “The Best Extreme Metal of 2011″? That would at least be a little more adequately narrow, or at least less inaccurate. Perhaps I come across here as being far too judgmental, but this is what blogs are built for right? Someone could exasperatedly chime in at this point to say “Look, its just a goddamned list, get over it”. Well I also see it for being more than what a casual reader may take it as — and that is a concerted effort to make metal appealing to the indie and culturally hip audiences of NPR and Pitchfork. There is a trend developing within the ranks of American based non-metal media, as well as some metal based media outlets (I’m looking at you Decibel) to intellectualize a certain set of subgenres and plant their flags upon it as if to signal to hipsters everywhere, its okay to listen to this particular brand of metal. Any metal not within the confines of these designated genres is to be considered dumb, sophmoric, and dated music for neanderthals who wank about guitar solos, drink beer, and act like idiots at metal festivals like Wacken. Am I taking this a bit too far? Maybe… but deep down I suspect I’m right about the motivations here. I’d love for Gotrich and Stosuy to come on here to refute me and make me eat my words somehow. They’ll be sent links to this.

My accusations of blatant exclusionism against these two writers in particular is supported by the fact that there is a host of metal oriented websites and blogs, many of whom have been in operation for well over a decade, that offer completely different takes on what is the best metal of 2011. The fifteen year old web zine Metal Rules placed the aforementioned Accept and Blind Guardian albums at the top two positions of their 2010 list, respectively, and they have an even more varied and cross-subgenre based list for 2011. I may not find myself agreeing with many of the choices on their list, but I do appreciate the fact that it is coming from a website that reviews any and all subgenres within metal. Check out their reviews section and you’ll find that many of the bands on both the NPR and Pitchfork lists are reviewed in depth. There many other metal oriented sites out there that share a similar open minded viewpoint, such as the Angry Metal Guy, one of the best places to get informed opinions about metal across the board. Check out the tireless efforts of Stone at Metal Odyssey, the always unique takes of Dan DeLucie at Heavy Metal Power, and the often hilarious yet always informative work at Metal Sucks. Two Cleveland metal legends, Officer Metal and Doctor Metal, offer experienced, informed opinions about the more melodic side of metal through their excellent college radio shows the Metal Command, and the Metal Meltdown, respectively. There are so many more, too many to list actually, that offer wildly different takes that are often informed from a more centrist metalhead perspective. What is unfortunate is that none of them are as popular as NPR and Pitchfork.

It may sound as if I’m angry about all this stuff, well, not really. Disturbed yes, annoyed even more so because so many of the bands that I’ve enjoyed over the years fall into those categories that would not fit in with idea of metal that the non-metal oriented media wants to talk about. It affects me personally when these bands I love decide to pass on touring the United States due to lack of perceived popularity in our country. They can’t get decent press, record sales never grow adequately, and they decide to do the smart thing and stick to Europe, South America, and Japan for financial reasons. Some of the gutsier bands try their hand at building a niche fan base in the States, such as the Swedish power metallers Sabaton, who by this coming April will have passed through my city of Houston three times in one year(!). I’ve heard them speak with my own ears about the uncertainties of touring in the United States — they admit, they aren’t sure if they can pull it off half the time. A great, truly amazing band both live and on record like Sabaton gets no American press except from the depths of the metal underground, while hosts of tastemaker approved bands get viral online attention (a good many of which are studio projects, or bands that tour only in limited fashion). Something is wrong with this scenario, and its disappointing that nothing will change.

Two Fridays ago I enjoyed listening to the long running metal radio show Metal on Metal based out of Cleveland by another one of that city’s metal legends, Bill Peters. His end of the year list was created by requesting listeners’ votes for their top three choices of 2011. The list that was compiled was interesting to behold; over one thousand listeners contributed and the final two were neck and neck. It ultimately finished with Anvil’s 2011 release Juggernaut of Justice getting the top spot over Anthrax’s Worship Music. Not Blut Aus Nord, or Cormorant, nor (dear me) Liturgy — but Anvil and Anthrax. When we get lost in the myriad depths of blog comment fields and the hidden realms of web forum discussions, we often shutter ourselves away from the reality of what is actually happening in the world. This applies to metal, and to its appreciation as a form of topical discussion. As seen here in Metal on Metal’s listener compiled list, what large samples of metal fans are actually listening to is far removed from what sites like NPR and Pitchfork prescribe. With all due respect to the bodies of work and the talent of the artists on those lists, I can’t imagine the majority of them taking to the stage at the metal community’s international proving ground of Wacken Open Air. There really is a silent majority in metal. The audience for this type of music is massive, but the portion you see online is a small, fragmented mosaic. Tens of thousands of people bought the new Megadeth record in its first week of release — they did not look to the web for a recommendation.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. The Mule permalink
    January 18, 2012 2:36 am

    I understand your frustration that these lists represent only a portion of the metal that’s out there but I don’t think these critics are obligated to represent all sub genres equally if there are some that that they just care less for. In the end, I’m pretty sure that Stosuy and Gotrich listed what their tastes and appreciation moved them to list and I wouldn’t expect anything less of them.

    I also don’t think it’s any surprise that their lists diverge so significantly from majority opinion. It’s very normal for critics to prefer more idiosyncratic music than the general pool of listeners, that’s how it is in any medium. I think critics like Stosuy and Gotrich are the kind that tend to look for metal bands who try to do new and unusual things with the genre. An emphasis on freshness and innovation tends to disqualify a lot of traditional-sounding metal, much moreso the work of old metal giants like Megadeth and Anvil. I’m not saying that’s right either! It’s just that every personal best of list has its built in standards for what makes the BEST metal.

    I’ll lay my cards on the table and confess that I’d qualify as one of these former hipsters you’re talking about; a guy who got bored with detached indie rock and recently became entranced with metal and its many unique subtypes. I started out with Mastodon and Opeth, simply because I heard about them first thanks to their sizable reputations that expand well beyond the Metalverse proper. But I didn’t stop listening with them! A random overview of my metal playlist will reveal Slayer, High On Fire, Mercyful Fate, Judas Priest, Electric Wizard, Kreator, Emperor, and yes, Tombs and Blut Aus Nord. It’s scanty compared to the playlists of people who’ve been listening to metal much longer than I have, yes, but everyone’s gotta start somewhere…While I’ve mined lists like Stosuy’s for leads on new music, I’m still open to other stuff out there and don’t plan to stop on any sub genre based on the particular preferences of one lone critic, however much I respect his opinion.

    So I hope your desire is (and I cautiously say I *gather* that this is the case…) to expose some of your favorite unappreciated metal to unversed newbies like me, and not to dismiss the lot of us ex-hipsters as wannabes. For me, the purpose of lists isn’t to revel in the narcissism of self-satisfied critics, it’s to find to new avenues to music you’ve never heard of before. Any list should just be part of a continuing discussion and never the Final Word On Heavy Metal, 2011.

  2. January 18, 2012 9:25 am

    To address your last point, that is in fact my primary hope — its why I published my own best of metal 2011 list, which I hope directs people to enjoy something they wouldn’t normally be inclined to listen to. Your concern that I might be dismissive of listeners of metal music simply due to any particular scene affililation (or labeling, such as “hipster”) is also one that I can completely refute. Where people come from on their way to genuinely enjoying metal isn’t a problem for me, I’ve spent well over a decade trying to promote metal in any small meager way I could to people who are unversed in this genre of music.

    I should perhaps more clearly state that I really do enjoy some of the selections on both the NPR and Pitchfork lists (Blut Aus Nord, Hammers of Misfortune, Peste Noire, Absu, Altar of Plagues, Necros Christos). But how is something as intangible as freshness defined? If we are speaking about the melding of two genres I will give credit where its due and say that the black metal coming out of France in the past few years is certainly a strange blend of two disparate styles that sometimes works really well, while other times simply falling flat to my ears. However we’ve heard freshness in modern Norwegian black metal as well without the need to remove the ‘teeth’ from the approach (see new albums by Taake, Enslaved, and Burzum — the latter of which clearly laid out the template for the melding of black metal and ambient music over the course of many records). When I listen to the much lauded crop of USBM bands such as Deafheaven, Krallice, Ash Borer, Liturgy, etc — I hear a mutation of the French approach over the black metal template played through fuzzy guitars (and that is relevant to point out, fuzzy guitars being a traditional attribute of indie-rock, not metal). It lacks the impact, the ‘punch’ that I normally associate with metal as a whole (no matter the subgenre). Quite frankly, I find the stuff boring, despite all its venturing away from the “traditional” black metal approach. Give me Immortal’s “At the Heart of Winter” any day. Maybe this is to be expected from someone who as a kid grew into metal out of hard rock rather than indie rock (ie listening to Guns N Roses when I could have been listening to My Bloody Valentine).

    You are absolutely correct in stating that these critics do not have to cover all subgenres of metal, as I mentioned in the original essay I can understand them not appreciating traditional and power metal. I’ll have to disagree however, on the notion of these genres being devoid of freshness and innovation. Freshness in these styles can be exemplified in the songwriting, through both the complexities and the simplifications that characterize the musical and lyrical arrangements. Fresh new power metal? I’ll point out Blind Guardian’s head spinning 2010 release “At the Edge of Time”, and my number one and two albums of 2011, Symphony X’s “Iconoclast” and Nightwish’s “Imaginaerum”, the latter a record so multifaceted and layered in crystalline arrangements that it takes well into a dozen listens to appreciate it all. Falconer’s “Armod” is another record that will leap out at you, mixing traditionally black metal attributes such as blast beats with dark, aggressive, mythical power metal. If we go in the direction of simplicity, put on Accept’s “Blood of the Nations” — here they’ve melded what is a traditional German heavy metal sound with Opeth producer Andy Sneap’s ultra heavy guitar production. Its heavier than most black metal. Its a refreshing uplift of a style that has sonically never matched the power of other metal subgenres. There’s a Swedish band called Therion that is the most innovative and unsung band in all of metal. They do a fusion that is composed of trad metal guitars, power and death metal vocals, Norwegian-styled black metal symphonies, abruptly shifting song structures (ie Burzum like hypnotic drone tendencies), all rounded off by esoteric, mythological lyrical concepts. Check out Avantasia’s recent conceptual trilogy of albums (The Scarecrow/The Wicked Symphony/ The Angel of Babylon) for a sonically re-altered take on power metal, fusing together hard rock and even pop yet still sounding epic beyond epic.

    I could list a few more examples (ah an idea for a future article!) but I’ve been typing long enough here. The point is that there is plenty of freshness and innovation to be found in even the usually stoically regarded styles of traditional and power metal. You just have to dig deep and start looking. These are genres that feature bands whose music is often far more thoughtful, relevant, and inspired than one would suspect from glancing at the surface of things. There’s a lot of mediocre to bad stuff in every subgenre of metal, but also gems to be unearthed by a new listener. The key to genres like trad and power (and even Norwegian black metal) is to suspend one’s cynicism. You just have to leave things like irony at the door and go on the ride that this music takes you on.

    I have to compliment your playlist by the way, some great stuff on there — cool to see that you’re already dipping into some excellent traditional stuff such as Kreator and Mercyful Fate. I appreciate you reading and responding, it was a well reasoned post. There are no wannabes when it comes to being introduced to metal in my opinion, as long as you truly enjoy what you’re listening to. I stand by the crux of my original article, I think its a shame that popular, non-metal oriented web destinations such as NPR and Pitchfork simply ignore so much of what the worldwide metal community as a whole very much enjoys, instead picking and choosing the strains that they deem suitable for their audiences (maybe they’re embarrassed by most metal? I don’t know).

    Also, on two bands you mentioned in your post, I love Megadeth, grew up on them… Anvil, not so much.

  3. January 18, 2012 2:07 pm

    Very interesting piece. I just followed a link here from Angry Metal Guy, and I am pleased to find such a thoughtful (and well composed) “essay” on a fairly important issue.

    I find myself in agreement with The Mule. The best way to determine which work is the cream of the crop in any given year is to use “the wisdom of the crowd” and consider many different opinions. And different authors have different objectives. For those who make it their business to review a wide sample of the metal world, the “best of” lists should reflect than and not show a bias towards a given sub-genre. On the flip side, a non-specialist will either review A) what they know or B) what they think would appeal to their readers.

    When I read metal blogs, my goal is to expand my metal music library. When I read general music blogs, my goal is to take more dramatic steps and explore new genres or bands that are completely out of left field (to me). Often, I don’t like what I hear, but if I connect with something, I take baby steps away from what I know I like already and form a core set of bands that all do essentially the same thing in different ways. Then I expand out again. Therefore, I believe the NPR/Pitchfork approach to reviewing metal might actually really help bring new fans to ALL of metal. The first metal album, whatever sub-genre it belongs to, is a foray into metal all the same. Maybe the speed is attractive, maybe the epicness, maybe the mood, maybe the technical proficiency. That will inform the search for the next band.

    My love of metal started in Jr. High with some acts that would NEVER have been considered “best of” on any metal site. If I were reading blogs then, it would probably have been the “metal” section of a Goo Goo Dolls fan page. But that’s okay, it got me thinking, it expanded my horizons. I don’t think what is actually “best in metal” will appeal to a non-metal person. When I spin “At the edge of time” for friends, the first response is typically a laugh, followed by a comment about how cheesy or melodramatic it is. But, I firmly believe someone introduced to metal through Agalloch will one day find elements of Blind Guardian that they enjoy if they take the time to explore metal (which not everyone will, and that is okay).

    • January 19, 2012 10:50 pm

      Regarding NPR and Pitchfork’s lists being a gateway to other styles of metal, I honestly do hope that’s what will happen. To tie it into what you said in your last paragraph, all these different styles of metal will share some of those fundamental qualities you mentioned (speed, epicness, mood, technical proficiency, etc) through some band or another, so its easily possible for the bands on those lists to be gateway bands to other genres for an eager listener.

      Your description of your early experience in metal makes me consider my early metal years, when I was all about thrash and then death metal – and very resistant to things like trad and power metal (which I mistakenly thought consisted of nothing but Manowar clones, (whom I detested for some reason that’s long forgotten now). I always loved Maiden, and I loved the Maiden-esque/folk feel of the melo-death stuff coming out of Gothenburg — so craving more of that style of guitar work led me to find the right introductory bands that pulled me into really enjoying trad and power metal. Its probably not the typical progression for an average metal fan (or maybe its more common than I realize), but it worked for me.

      My favorite things about Agalloch echo my favorite things about listening to Blind Guardian, such as really loving singular moments in a song even if its already 4 or 5 minutes in — those ultra melodic solo guitar sections (ie the 5:45 min mark in “Not Unlike the Waves”). I have to hear that part if I start the song, just like I have to hear Hansi’s final blood thirsty scream towards the end of “Another Holy War”.

  4. Joseph "BadWolf" Schafer permalink
    January 18, 2012 2:20 pm

    What an incredible read. I adore it.

    I am a fellow Metal blogger, I write at NoCleanSinging, as well as Invisible Oranges. Both sites with a certain ‘hispter’ appeal, even if the audiences of both will definitely refute this. NCS in general, I think, has been thrust to the fore of a vanguard of Djent-ster websites. On that website, I tend to flout the Stousy/Gotrich ‘school’ of metal listening, while on IO I try to cover LESS ‘ster music. I want to be the devil’s advocate, to expose people to things that are outside their comfort zones.

    That’s the issue at hand for me, comfort zones. What I enjoy about metal is that it is confrontational, challenging music, and I always look for a more challenging listen… Or at least I used to. The fuzzy guitar metal sound is finally losing some sway with me. As much as I love My Bloody Valentine (and I do, as well as G n’ R) I was happier with it staying where it was–the past. I have the same issue with power metal.

    For example Nightwish was one of my first BIG listening crazes. I devoured that band. Years later, I find Imaginaerum to be–as you said —a very deep and itnricate work, but one lacking the simple charms of Oceanborn or Angels Fall First.

    The big thing Indie offers metal, to me, is noncompressed production, or at least production that, Unlike the new Symphony X, doesn’t make my ears tired after 10 minutes of listening.

    IDK, It’s an important issue and a fascinating one. For example one of my favorite albums of the year was High Spirits’ Another Night. It’s a one man project from Chicago, by the guy from Dawnbringer and Nachtmystium, and both outlets ignored it, probably BECAUSE it is such an earnest glam metal record. No fuzz. No irony. I LOVED that about it–it walked such a straight line. It is as if everything, to the hipsters must be crooked, or ‘twisted’ in some way, away from the early 80’s.

    I wonder what they woudl say if i pointed out that Liturgy’s “Generation” is an 8-minute long breakdown, with more similarities to, say, Born of Osiris, than Burzum.

    Look, I IMPLORE you to email me and let us discuss this further, yes?

    Joseph

    • January 19, 2012 11:48 pm

      Hi Joseph, I’ve actually been a lurker on Invisible Oranges for a little bit, and have read some stuff you’ve written there. I really enjoyed the “Letting Go of Heavy Metal” feature you had up recently. I haven’t been a regular visitor at No Clean Singing but I’ll try to get there more often (maybe it was the name keeping me away hah).

      Its interesting that you describe metal as a confrontational, challenging music. I don’t ever find myself thinking of it that way except when having to consider its impact on listeners who have been unexposed to it. Maybe that’s just the result of having listened to metal for an extremely long time. I’ve grown so accustomed to having to listen repeatedly to difficult bands or albums in order to “crack open” their secrets. There’s a part of me that suspects that all the years put into delving through inaccessible styles such as death metal or black metal have made me really appreciative of those instantaneous moments that take only a second to click and make me grin (such as the track “Heavy Metal Never Dies” off the new Iron Savior record).

      This is why I am thoroughly enjoying the few tracks I’ve checked out on youtube from this High Spirits record you mentioned. There’s a Scorpions-ish vibe in there that I love, and you’re right about the pure, earnest approach that its taking. Thanks for the inadvertent album recommendation, I’m going to have to grab this as soon as I can. And yes I’m completely up for further discussions on all this stuff.

      As for the Liturgy and Born of Osiris comparisons — hah, I’ll let you handle that!

  5. ciaran permalink
    January 18, 2012 2:25 pm

    I think the points made above are valid. You often see the same thing when magazines like rolling stone or nme discuss the ‘heaviest’ albums of all time – which are invariably bias towards Sunn O))) et al. Not that I think there is anything wrong with that, but they do seem to be the poster boys for this “indie-metal its fashionable to like” cross over. I went to see wolves in the throne room a few weeks ago expecting to the venue jam packed with black metal heads, but instead it was full of hipsters sipping cocktails. The thing is, I don’t think any of these people came to support similar bands when they come on tour.

    I think they consider heavy metal (or whatever sub-genre) a musical experiment, and if you don’t get it you’re not cool, know little about music and ironically are limited by your perceptions or intelligence about what music really is. This may have something to do with metal, and black metal in particular, undergoing a bit of an image change (e.g. battles in the north type facepaint). But that’s part of the problem, there’s a history and culture there which does not have its origins in indie garage rock, but the likes of maiden and priest which are definately not cool or palatable to these people. I think what is particularly annoying is that bloggers who think including a band from southern lord or profound lore in their end of year list somehow validates a whole genre of music which in the past was generally regarded as a joke. They don’t really seem to be aware, or pay homage to the fact that there are many commonailities between the different sub-genres – all of which influence one another to to produce bands like mastodon and neurosis. Its a bit like selective amnesia – they’re a cool band but lets just forget about all that ugly heavy metal stuff they’re probably into.

    • January 20, 2012 1:04 am

      “Selective amnesia” is a phrase that I really like and am going to remember, I think you’re dead on about that, particularly when it comes to things such as influences. I recall an interview with the Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi Birgisson where he said that Iron Maiden was his first musical love and inspiration to become a musician, and the interviewer couldn’t help but laugh it off and ask him if he was serious. There does seem to be some type of image change happening within black metal, where even some of the Norwegian bands are setting aside the corpse paint.

      I do cherish the bands that hold onto their image as a vital part of their overall presentation. I think that metal is a style of music that is built upon traditions, both sonically and visually. How crap would it be to see Judas Priest live with them wearing the Miami nightlife gear that Lars and Kirk so gleefully wore in the Load album booklet photos? Or how convincing would Immortal be if they didn’t look the part? I’d have a hard time accepting a guy in jeans and a t-shirt telling me tales about Blashyrkh, regardless of the music being awesome. But have Abbath out there looking like the frost panda that he is, and it all comes together. Its an actual inhabitant of Blashyrkh telling you these ancient tales through this excellently brutal thrashy black metal. Sometimes image and imagery are important.

      edit – Shame about the WITTR show, hopefully it was enjoyable all the same. I’m not a fan of that band but I have a hard time imagining that they enjoy playing to people that are standing around sipping cocktails. Lame.

  6. The Mule permalink
    January 18, 2012 5:42 pm

    Well, I’ll certainly check out the bands you’ve recommended here!

    I knew I was going to get myself into trouble by suggesting that more traditional-sounding metal or power metal was not very innovative and I’m glad you set out to prove me wrong. A lot of my early gateways into metal started with 80s bands like the famous NWOBHM groups, especially Maiden, and the big four of thrash metal. So, I’m happy to check any traditional or power metal stuff out if someone gives me reason to think it’ll be something special and more than a mere nostalgic rehash.

    It was illuminating for me that you pointed out the was a lot of USBM uses more indie rock-oriented, fuzzy guitars. You’re right. A lot of today’s crop of USBM seems at least partially conceived through the lens of indie rock, kind of like how previous incarnations of metal were conceived through the lenses of hard rock and hardcore punk. Doubtless, it’s unthinkable that bands like Krallice and Deafheaven could exist if there were no My Bloody Valentine to precede them. I generally like the stuff (not Liturgy so much though), I like the dreadful mood that it evokes, but you right, it doesn’t have the concentrated, rhythmic ferocity that you find in a lot of other metal, across many sub genres. I’m sure that no longtime metal fan wants newcomers to think this one branch off the tree represents today’s metal in its entirety.

  7. January 18, 2012 8:27 pm

    I think the lists you are critiquing are doing a good job showcasing metal releases that would appeal to people who have grown tired of the more defined metal genres. It’s for listeners with branching musical tastes, in all areas. I grew up on metal, starting through the radio and exploring the classics then digging into the internet as I got a little older. I’m no hipster but I will listen to any music with an interesting( and usually dark) atmosphere. I’ve grown bored with most traditional metal, excluding the classics and bands that innovated. I don’t see why the lists have to represent all genres of metal. Basically, the side of the metal blogsphere you are critiquing is for people who are actively exploring and not satisfied to stick within the main genres of metal. They seem to represent the side of metal with a strong punk ethos.

    “With all due respect to the bodies of work and the talent of the artists on those lists, I can’t imagine the majority of them taking to the stage at the metal community’s international proving ground of Wacken Open Air. There really is a silent majority in metal. The audience for this type of music is massive, but the portion you see online is a small, fragmented mosaic. Tens of thousands of people bought the new Megadeth record in its first week of release — they did not look to the web for a recommendation.”

    First off, Wacken Open Air is not the kind of proving ground a lot of those bands are looking for. I’d imagine Maryland Deathfest and Roadburn are more their style. Also, the portion of the metal audience you see online are the ones who are forever searching for new bands and new sounds, ect. I don’t think people should be commended for being blindly loyal to the metal genre and supporting the big metal acts. It all comes down to art vs entertainment I guess.

    • January 21, 2012 8:10 pm

      I can actually sympathize with your sentiment of growing bored with traditional metal. I went through a period of time a few years back where everything in metal just sounded flat and uninspired to me and I found myself expanding my musical tastes outside of metal into indie rock, alt-country, world music, etc etc. It helped that I was working at a music store at the time, the stuff was staring me in the face everyday. I think going through that period made me appreciate metal as a whole again when I returned to it in full force (ie checking out new bands, releases, etc). It even made me appreciate the classics again, and conversely find that bands I had been unable to enjoy or simply was unmoved by were now clicking with me in full force. I can’t explain why that happened, and its hard to really correlate it with expanding my non-metal musical horizons — but I’m convinced that it is the cause of it. Maybe the time spent listening to other styles of music was able to magnify the core elements that I loved the most in metal, and missed in other music.

      As for my mentioning Wacken, you’re probably spot on in saying that its not the venue these bands are looking for. It was a question of how their music would be received at that festival. For me, Wacken is symbolic in the sense that it is prestigious to play there, its a place where the traditions and heritage of our genre can be celebrated. It is a mecca for metal fans around the globe. Wacken gets its fair share of criticism online, some deserved, but a good portion of it I feel is base elitism from metal fans who can’t seem to comprehend a place were all styles of metal are welcomed and loved. When I watch clips of live shows from Wacken I see enthusiastic audiences, no matter who the band might be (good examples to witness would be Emperor, Avantasia – who get a lot of flak from online metal fans, even Airborne, who are pure hard rock). A field full of people as far as the eye can see with their hands in the air, clapping in unison or throwing the horns to all three of the bands mentioned. Perhaps I sound too idealistic, but I love the unity and openness that I see in that, it is refreshing to view when I get burned out on plowing through the overwhelming cynicism online. I think the only requirements to succeed at a festival like Wacken are that you sound remotely close to hard rock or metal (no matter the subgenre), and can put on a good show and entertain an audience. I think a few of the bands on the NPR and Pitchfork lists could actually achieve this, but many of the others are far removed from being able to. Maybe they will all play there and shut me up. I’d be impressed, give them credit, and publicly recant the sentiment. I’m not holding my breath however.

  8. Ryan Page permalink
    January 18, 2012 8:42 pm

    It seems more than a little pathetic that someone’s personal choice of albums they enjoyed, and decided to share, should be subject to the ridiculous (and impossible) need to objectively represent the best albums from metal as a generic genre. It’s not simply that your trad-metal suggestions are, from my perspective, really fucking shitty, but that you felt the need to weave it into some faux conspiracy about why your small corner of the metal community wasn’t represented.

    I feel like your argument is fairly self defeating in the sense that you’re trying to make one subsection of the genre appear victimized, and yet you use the fact that vast majority of publications acted differently as evidence that these two sources were “wrong” about their choices. If people want the generic metal top forty there are plenty of sources that offer that (which you make clear in your article), so I’m curious as to what the harm is in showcasing underground choices.

    Your point about their popularity contains a pretty big logical misstep: NPR and Pitchfork might be more popular than the sites you mentioned, but they also are not intended to serve the niche community that listens to metal. If you subtract the listenership interested in news, and entertainment unrelated to metal, I’m pretty sure NPR’s website would be in the same ballpark (if not much, much smaller in scale) than, say Metalsucks.

    And did you really call that site “funny and informative”?

    • January 20, 2012 12:17 am

      Are the best metal lists on both NPR and Pitchfork intended only for visitors to the site who are already into metal? I can’t say for sure about Pitchfork but I find myself listening to NPR daily and combing through the website every other day for news and random information. I rely on NPR as one of my sources for finding non-metal music that I’d potentially enjoy, I’d think its safe to assume that the reverse could be true for another listener/reader. I’m not sure what you’re getting at by illustrating a subtraction of the “listenership interested in news, and entertainment unrelated to metal”.

      And yes, you read it right, funny and informative.

      • Ryan Page permalink
        January 21, 2012 2:56 pm

        What I was getting at was that you were comparing apples an oranges. Metal website traffic doesn’t compare to the traffic of national news organization. In your article you tried to do exactly that. You listed a number of metal-specific sites and said “What is unfortunate is that none of them are as popular as NPR and Pitchfork.”

  9. January 19, 2012 12:44 pm

    For the record, these are all pretty great comments, but I agree and empathize with every single word of this post. (Except for the part about power metal. You can keep that). Bottom line, though: If you’ve spent a lot of time loving metal, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder about it.

    I admit that I’ve been kind of a jerk to Lars on occassion, but I think he’s committed to what he likes, and he does a good job putting a spotlight on things we might not otherwise pay attention to (plus, he was actually really nice the one time I met him).

    It just kills me that he never gives any love to the old guard or anything halfway mainstream. That exclusion just sort of reinforces a rather mean-spirited stereotype about people who might also like more mainstream metal as mouthbreathers who could never possibly be the kind of well rounded music lovers that NPR otherwise caters to very well. (Carrie Brownstein’s old NPR blog, on the other hand, gave shout outs to everyone from Priest to Danzig to Alice Cooper, and usually from a non-ironic place of love….or a non-ironic place of like).

    • January 20, 2012 12:37 am

      Completely agree. And I’ll also just take a second to reiterate that I do enjoy reading Lars Gotrich’s stuff, regardless of whether or not I agree with it or enjoy the bands he is spotlighting. I certainly don’t bear him any ill will. Your sentiment about the reinforcement of negative stereotypes as a side effect of the exclusion of the “old guard” and anything halfway mainstream rather succinctly sums up something I feel strongly about. This reminds me of something a friend of mine said to me recently, “Whats wrong with metal that you can bang your head and drink beer to?”

      And yeah I really miss Monitor Mix, it was a great read and no matter the topic at hand I always found the write ups interesting. I don’t remember the Priest or Danzig shout outs but I do remember that she was the only person at NPR to review Until the Light Takes Us. Too bad she decided to give it up.

      • January 20, 2012 10:43 am

        So, I’ve been thinking about it, and I have to say that the word “exclusionary” actually opens up a whole can of worms. Bear with me:

        A lot of us initially jumped into metal because we were teenage outcasts, AKA “excluded”. (a stereotype in its own right, but it tends to be true.) During those fragile years, the metal community turned into a safe place for many of us, and the longer we loved it, the more we’ve felt compelled to defend it during our formative years from those who preferred music that is smarter (punk), more sophisticated (jazz), prettier (pop) or more popular (hip-hop).

        ((The irony here, of course, is that most of grew up to enjoy all of the above genres)).

        Anyway, at a certain point there’s a real danger within the metal community of being too defensive of our outsider status. Because that just leads to exclusionary behavior of our own, even when it comes to excluding fickle intellectuals and undesirable follow-along hipsters – who, ironically, are often the types of folks that we felt most excluded by at age 13.

        The fact is that from trad jazz fans who shunned the likes of the early Stones, folkies who booed the electric Dylan, or the folks at the Grand Ole Oprey who once tried to ban drums from the stage, those who favor exclusion are rarely on the winning side of music history. Much as I hate to share space with people who often seem to enjoy *telling* other people about music than actually experiencing it, we’re probably better off with a bigger tent.

  10. January 19, 2012 5:12 pm

    I wrote in an article almost a decade ago that assimilation was the crisis facing metal.

    Assimilation is when rock music re-absorbs metal, which has an entirely different spirit from rock.

    The indie metallers are leading the way by making metal-flavored rock music and using it to take over the genre.

    • The Mule permalink
      January 19, 2012 10:05 pm

      “Assimilation is when rock music re-absorbs metal, which has an entirely different spirit from rock.
      The indie metallers are leading the way by making metal-flavored rock music and using it to take over the genre.”

      um, really???…what metal-flavored rock music taking over the genre are you referring to?

    • January 20, 2012 12:42 am

      Man I’d like to read that article – especially since it was written a decade ago (which was already in the swing of a pretty good resurgence of metal in my memory). Got it up anywhere?

  11. Korgull permalink
    January 20, 2012 3:59 am

    The most disturbing thing I saw on these lists was the lack of Hell’s “Human Remains”, I had to check that it actually had been released in 2011!
    That’s how you sort out the true fans from the pretenders, considering Human Remains was not only one of the best albums of 2011, it’s one of the best damn Metal albums ever.

    • January 21, 2012 7:32 pm

      I’ll make it a point to check that album out – especially if you’re suggesting that its one of the greatest metal albums of all time.

  12. January 20, 2012 7:41 am

    The NPR/Pitchfork lists were no different than the lists you posted from various sites. Both are exclusionary. Taking a look at all the top lists on the sites you posted, I see Anthrax on quite a lot of them and they are mostly a makeup of traditional heavy metal influenced bands.

    Very little, if any, death metal to be found on any (Pitchfork/NPR/or any of the other sites you link).

    To be honest, it’s all up to taste…and in the case of the hipster sites, quite shitty tastes at that. Everyone wants to be “edgy” and “different” but they are just recycling the same takes. The worst part of all of this is if you aren’t “doing anything different” your music has to suck…it’s not about well-written and played songs or albums anymore.

    • January 21, 2012 9:14 pm

      I have the feeling that you’re right about the “if you aren’t “doing anything different” your music has to suck” notion. Its not expressed so bluntly, but there in certain avenues and circles there is a premium placed on concepts such as breaking new ground, expanding musical boundaries, and redefining genres. There’s a reviewer at the allmusic website by the name of Alex Henderson who is often tasked with reviewing traditional metal albums (for some odd reason), and invariably he always compares metal classicists with the “young lions” in jazz, that is, modern jazz artists purposefully performing a throwback style that harkens back to acoustic jazz of the 40s and 50s. Apart from the unusual comparison, he makes a good point throughout most of these reviews in that this type of classicist metal can be vital and important. What counts is craftsmanship, and in metal as a whole that does begin with songwriting, at least to my sensibilities. An inspired, well written and arranged song will always have more value to me than an albums worth of attempts at innovation that fails to provide me with any reason to give it repeated listens.

      Innovation has been, and is important in metal — but you’ll find in nearly all cases that where a genre or style of metal has been “advanced” by a band or an album, it was done so with memorable songwriting as well as sonic freshness.

  13. Frontier Psychiatrist permalink
    February 10, 2012 8:38 am

    Well thought out article. I will definitely check out some of these bands. In terms of my list being an exclusionary one, I have to admit I have not been listening to metal all that long. This was more of a companion piece to my original article about the growing pains of getting into metal. From my perspective, metal is unapproachable for the uninitiated. The metal community is an isolated one and suspicious of outsiders. The Pitchfork and NPR (and Frontier Psychiatrist) lists have value because they open up an opportunity to explore metal to the average listener who is not part of metal’s core audience. I don’t actually consider them to be the best metal releases of the year. For those lists, I would defer to writers like yourself who have a more expansive knowledge of the metal scene. But these lists are necessary because they give those of us who are wary to approach metal an opportunity to get our toes wet.

  14. February 15, 2012 10:52 pm

    Good read!

    Hey you missed a kick-ass (sic) underground Metal site:

    Demolish Mag.Online/Demolish A.D. – delivering the goods since the late 80’s.

    Come on over if you prefer singing VS cookie monster growling or Black crap from 90’s – 2000’s.

    *ask Stone over at Metal Odyssey if you need a horns up!
    ;-)

    P.S. It’s all about the MUSIC and always has been…

  15. April 16, 2012 3:55 pm

    I have a difficult time finding valuable blog articles, because there is too much garbage on the internet now, but this is really high quality stuff. Thanks a lot for posting!

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