It’s easy to judge something by its cover. It’s easy to merely see something on the surface and just write it off or dismiss it, such as the fate of a lot of non-mainstream music. It’s as if there’s only a small window for music that people will tolerate, and not force them to stretch beyond their means or step out of their comfort zone, now thanks to suggestive streaming services like Pandora that recommend you music you might like. They tend to pigeonholed you in a musical box that caters to your niche genre, which sounds like a great idea for a streaming service, but actually could be debilitating to one’s music taste. Only the curious and patient dare to listen to new types of music they’re not usually exposed to. However, fans of one particular genre have been caught up in this struggle for decades.
Heavy metal fans for a long time have been hesitant in following the growth of their favorite bands and artists, unsure of how to feel about their choice bands taking new steps and experimenting with different methods and sounds. It can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for fans who see metal music only on the surface: loud guitars and screaming vocals to relieve anger or frustration.
But such opinions can be detrimental to one’s music taste. Every metal fan in the 90s can remember when Metallica released the infamous “Black Album,” and album that departed form Metallica’s neck-break speeds of thrash metal for a more melodious, catchy, mainstream rock sound, which at the time divided critics and fans alike, despite it being their highest selling record to date. It was a move that made them lose some die hard fans, but casted a wide net to gain a whole lot more.
The most recent example of this phenomenon is Queens of the Stone Age’s latest release, Villains, an album that also chooses to leave behind their hard rock origins for a “dancier” sound pallet, thanks to producer Mark Ronson. It was quite the departure from their original sound, but a healthy one nonetheless. It’s an album more diverse than anything in their entire discography, an attempt to reshape their sound by dipping their toes into different puddles but still keeping a firm footing in another.
And yet, there were always the inevitable, “It’s not as good as Songs for the Deaf” complaints.
Songs for the Deaf, QOTSA’s third studio album from 2002, was almost a rebirth of hard rock, a concept record that was serious in demeanor, but never took itself too seriously. And with Dave Grohl on drums, it sounded like a dying dream, a dream of what rock music used to be, or used to want to be. And yet, Villains still led to divisiveness among listeners, despite stepping out of their comfort zone to experiment with new ways of production, to try something different.
It’s a sad but true statement: metal fans are afraid to grow along with their favorite bands if not satisfied by their sound, in favor of a heavier and more aggressive sound. Now of course the situation is not that black and white, but I feel like metal fans are reluctant to change. They want their bands to stay heavy, to keep staying angry. It’s as if it’s a stimulus that is required to come along with heavy metal music, an automatic gratification fans expect when they listen to a record.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this phenomenon. Bands like Nine Inch Nails and Tool have been able to keep their fairly consistent fan base through their nearly 30 year run. But what makes them the exception? Despite them releasing music only in five to ten year increments, so as to starve their fans for new material, they use their production methods for purposes other than exposing violence or anger. They use music as a method of self-discovery and reflection, providing a road map through lyrics for listeners to devise their own answers.
They don’t provide an instant feeling of gratification through their music. They let their listeners think and ponder about their answers to the music. Albums like Ænima and The Downward Spiral require listeners to go the extra distance, to fill in that last step forward for themselves. They’re albums that offer up many questions and few answers.
So, why are metal fans reluctant to change? Because they eventually grow impatient with bands, expecting them to change and adjust their standards to their listeners’ in order for instant gratification. It’s a step backward from where metal music should go, almost like a curse it can’t escape, an unapologetic genre.
One day though, it will all change. Soon enough, a prominent and influential metal band will come along and release the be-all end-all album for metal albums, an album that will show metal fans that it’s okay to grow, it’s okay to change, it’s okay to think of metal in new ways, that it doesn’t have to be so black and white. It’ll be an album that changes the course of metal, unafraid to destroy and reconstruct what the genre means.