About a month ago, over a round of beers with a friend and fellow metalhead, a familiar question came up: “So, what are your thoughts on Phil Anselmo?”
Everybody who listens to metal has asked or been asked something along these lines before. And here’s why, for those who missed the controversy: Phil Anselmo, at last year’s Dimebash, gave a white power salute. He then tried to cover it up by saying it was a joke about drinking white wine backstage, which not only sounds like a weak excuse, it’s not a very good joke. And since then, he’s done several interviews that brought up the incident, very candidly admitting the mistake though by no means erasing it. Once you’ve opened the white supremacist door, it’s hard to close it back up.
Now me, I’ve never been the biggest Pantera fan—though I did love Down’s NOLA—and it’s not the first time Anselmo’s implicated his own ignorance. So my response was, “He’s an asshole, and probably a racist, but it’s not really a huge loss.” You can replace the name Anselmo with any number of other prominent metal musicians, whether it’s Jon Nodtveit for being a murderer (likely on the basis of the victim being gay), Burzum for being both a racist and a murderer, Craig Pillard for possibly being a Nazi, Inquisition for posturing as Nazis, Jef Whitehead for being an abuser, Deathspell Omega’s Mikka Aspo for being anti-Semitic, and so on. In all of these cases, for me anyhow, the music isn’t worth excusing the behavior. There are so many metal bands, and so many of them spectacular—most of it made by people who are actually pretty cool and don’t participate in racist or hateful bullshit!—that I don’t feel the need to waste my time on trying to do the mental gymnastics to try to justify it.
My friend replied by saying he loved both Down and Pantera, and still loved the bands even if Phil himself has proven to be a bad actor on many occasions. And that’s fine! You can enjoy music made by people you neither agree with nor even like as human beings. I still love old Michael Jackson records despite the very real probability that he was a sexual predator. I don’t feel great about it, nor do I intend to try to defend it, but we all draw our personal, arbitrary lines. That doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily reflect poorly on us in terms of our own habits or what we do as private citizens. Furthermore, this is America, and if racist idiots want to put out records, that’s protected speech (just don’t necessarily expect a prominent label to release it if so—the First Amendment says nothing about your right to get paid for being a racist idiot).
But in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, and the growing influence of hate groups in America, it’s really hard to sit back and just say, “hey, whatever floats your boat.” And a lot of other metal writers had the same reaction. MetalSucks published what it called the MetalSucks Manifesto back in November, essentially drawing a line in the sand: “it is time for all of us — ALL of us — to decide what we want metal to be.” The post goes on to say that they’ll show preferential treatment to artists who espouse the values of the website, which is an admirable goal in an abstract sense. That being said, it was met with some harsh criticism, a great deal of which came from its own comments section—ironically overrun with trolls!—and a number of anti-semitic blogs. There was also a more nuanced and well-written response from Hellbound’s Jay Gorania who stated that “Metal shouldn’t be safe. It should be a wild, primal beast.” Adrien Begrand, another contributor to Hellbound, argued that “All fans want to do is learn more about their favourite bands, read an engaging dissection of an album they love, or, simply, find some good new music they might like,” before essentially (seemingly) dismissing anything beyond that as being influenced by “egos, hurt feelings.” I assume this simply wasn’t articulated as well as it could have been, since Begrand himself has on many occasions called out awful behavior in metal, and for that I applaud him, but his argument here leaves me scratching my head a bit.
I have problems with all of these statements on some level. MetalSucks, though their hearts may be in the right place, often opt for sensational coverage, like Burzum’s racist RPG, which on some level contradicts their whole message. Granted, they did point out it was racist, but wouldn’t the stronger message be to draw no attention nor give any legitimacy to the worst actors within the genre? As for Gorania and Begrand, I certainly understand their objections to the MetalSucks Manifesto, in large part because it highlights the blog’s own hypocrisy. But I also think that sweeping hateful, criminal or ugly actions by popular musicians under the rug isn’t good for the genre, nor is it good for anyone. I do, however, agree that we don’t need to decide what we want metal to be. The less rigid the constraints on metal, the better. That also means sharing it with others. That means letting people in if they’re ready to explore it. That means embracing the fact that metal is a big tent.
Metal doesn’t have to be political. Yet metal often is political—Hammers of Misfortune, who released one of my favorite metal albums of 2016, frequently includes some form of social commentary in their music—and I think the idea that writing about metal should avoid any discussion of politics (or worse, that expressions nationalism, misogyny or racism can be dismissed as just politics) is both condescending and intellectually incurious. The popularity of metal spans the globe. It’s much bigger than the narrow stereotype of Scandinavian nationalists that persists despite it being such a narrow and non-representative slice of the larger pie. Metal’s language is international, and as such I firmly believe in metal as a positive force. So I don’t know why anyone would feel it necessary to be dismissive of those who would want their taste in music and a broader, more inclusive worldview to dovetail. I certainly do. Anytime someone complains about politics in the discussion of metal on Twitter or Facebook or in comments sections on the Internet, it’s a cheap way to avoid having a discussion about something real. Metal is a great form of escapism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be something more than that—or that the way we talk and write about it can’t be either.
Listening to Pantera or Bolzer or Inquisition or Disma or whatever doesn’t make you racist. Obviously that’s absurd. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is dead. Nor does it mean that any of those bands deserve publicity. I’m not going to draw a line in the sand and say what metal should or shouldn’t be. I’m also not going to promote music made by people who embrace hateful viewpoints or do reprehensible things. That’s my own personal point of view. You don’t have to agree with me, and I welcome discussion of it. But I also think that we’re all adults and we all should do better to confront the real arguments head on instead of taking offense that someone pointed out a band you liked might be made up of assholes. Don’t blame the messenger.
It’s 2017, but it’s worth repeating my mantra from the beginning of last year: Don’t be a shitbag.
The best metal tracks of January 2017
Black Anvil – “Ultra”
Black Anvil’s Hail Death was one of the black metal highlights of 2014, one that blended a modern production style (with behind-the-boards work by Jawbox’s J. Robbins, which is extra cool) with classic black metal intensity. For anyone that has a soft spot for old-school blackened mayhem (and Mayhem) but doesn’t necessarily want every band to be a Darkthrone clone, it scratched just the right itch. With their new album, As Was, the band is extending well beyond the tried-and-true black metal territory and embracing a totally different, more nuanced melodic approach. “Ultra,” the closing track to As Was, is black metal only by virtue of the band’s own grandfathered-in history (and its dual-bass-pedal blast rhythms and Satan-referencing chants in Latin). Instead of hailing to the Norse gods, it explores jagged post-hardcore progressions and vocal harmonies and guitar solos that recall vintage Alice in Chains. It all comes together magnificently, and will likely remind listeners of a similar progression that fellow Relapse alums Tombs have undertaken in recent years.[from As Was, out Jan. 13; Relapse]
Krallice – “Hate Power”
It feels like this track’s been kicking around for a while—a little longer than I ordinarily plan for when it comes to this column—but considering the last time I wrote one was the Top 10 Metal Albums of 2016 (for which I received little in the way of angry dissent, btw), I thought it best to one more time sing the praises of Krallice’s latest highlight. The shortest song on new album Prelapsarian, and for that matter one of their shortest songs ever, “Hate Power” is an exhilarating blast of complex, rhythmically disorienting black metal, complete with social commentary that’s not only refreshing but I dare say necessary. Regardless of lyrical content, “Hate Power” absolutely destroys. But given that it takes aim at the hate-mongering that’s been rising up in the past year, aided and abetted by a demagogue that tweeted his way into the Oval Office, “Hate Power” is more than just a cool metal song (which it is), it’s a vital statement of protest.[from Prelapsarian, out now; self-released/Gilead Media]
Power Trip – “Firing Squad”
Texas thrash-metal brawlers Power Trip released one of my favorite metal albums of 2013, Manifest Decimation, a beefy and badass collection of old-school mosh-pit mayhem that still satisfies a certain primal craving nearly four years later. “Firing Squad” is an adrenaline shot of the same brand of power-chord violence, showcasing the band in top form, with speed and intensity ratcheted up to the maximum. On a broader scale, new album Nightmare Logic finds the band expanding and building on the already great foundation of aggression and energy they’ve already laid down. “Firing Squad” isn’t necessarily the strongest example of that; it is, however, one of the most immediate and purely ass-kicking tracks of the bunch, offering a reminder of the kind of hardcore brawny and classic-thrash nihilism that Power Trip wield so well. It’s also the first taste of what’s already proving to be one of the best metal albums of a very young year. There’s not a lot I’m feeling optimistic about in 2017, but Power Trip’s gnarly riffs and squealing solos are offering some form of reassurance.[from Nightmare Logic, out Feb. 24; Southern Lord]
The Ominous Circle – “From Endless Chasms”
Olympia, Washington-based 20 Buck Spin has been responsible for some of the best metal to be released in the past year (or two or three), including my metal album of the year, Oranssi Pazuzu’s Värähtelijä. So it’s only natural that they begin the year with one of the most promising sounding death metal releases, from Portugal’s The Ominous Circle. Of the two tracks to preview the new album, “From Endless Chasms” is the one that takes on the most dizzying approach, with a high-speed, breakneck assault that comes careening with vintage Gothenburg buzzsaw menace. It’s grimy and it’s crusty and venomous as all get-out, but it also feels streamlined and immediate, which are qualities that tend to only be associated with certain specific corners of death metal. It’s not New Wave of Vintage Death Metal, not exactly, but it blends old-school destruction with modern sounds in all the best ways.[from Appalling Ascension, out Jan. 27; 20 Buck Spin]
King Woman – “Utopia”
King Woman’s upcoming Relapse full-length debut Created in the Image of Suffering was on our list of the 20 most anticipated albums of spring 2017 (as was Power Trip), so it’d be perhaps a little dishonest to leave out the late-2016 track release that most perked up my ears for the coming year in metal. King Woman’s version of metal is one steeped in shoegaze, dream pop, goth-rock and classic doom, bringing to mind the likes of Chelsea Wolfe as much as it does Pallbearer, so it’s far from traditional in that sense. But who needs tradition when you’ve got an aesthetic approach that sounds this amazing. “Utopia” improves on the production values from the excellent Doubt EP, plus adds even more in the way of hazy, intoxicating layers of vocals. Don’t get me wrong, I love a smoky slab of old-school doom metal. But it’s such a malleable, adaptable genre that there’s no reason not to play around with its capabilities, which King Woman does wonderfully.[from Created in the Image of Suffering, out Feb. 24; Relapse]
Piece by piece
The best metal albums of the past month:
Ash Borer‘s The Irrepassable Gate: I always look forward to new music from Ash Borer, in part because they’re masters of darkened mood. Contrary to a lot of bands playing black metal, they manage to pull off eerie atmosphere without borrowing tricks from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, yet they allow each of their compositions to breathe and open up. Again, they pull it off spectacularly. (Profound Lore)
Code Orange‘s Forever: Code Orange, formerly Code Orange Kids, made some great hardcore to begin with. Yet with their transition over to Roadrunner, they’ve grown a bit, incorporating more mainstream elements, bigger hooks and a more diverse approach to songwriting. These Kids are growing up. And I’m all for it. (Roadrunner)
Krallice‘s Prelapsarian: You’ll have to forgive the redundancy. I included Krallice twice in this month’s column, but by god they earned it. The New York black metal math wizards have released another outstanding record of twisting time signatures and unrelenting intensity. And it just so happens to have a particular standout track in the form of three-minute fuck-you-to-nationalists “Hate Power.” Part of the fun of each new Krallice album is diving in and trying to unlock the madness they unleash. And there’s plenty of that to decipher here. It’s no less complex than ever, but even at their most difficult they have a knack for melody that’s impossible to deny. (Self-released/Gilead)
Uniform‘s Wake In Fright: This isn’t technically a metal album, but the sophomore effort by this New York industrial duo is definitely heavy as fuck and full of songs that could burn your eyebrows right off. Industrial and metal have always been perfectly compatible, so while this one might have an asterisk, it’s an intense and ferocious piece of music that will definitely fit in comfortably alongside your Godflesh records. (Sacred Bones)
This month was tough to narrow down my favorite five new metal tracks, seeing as how technically there were two full months of new track releases to comb through. So while I didn’t include them, honorable mentions go to Kreator, Immolation, Darkest Hour, Code Orange and Iron Reagan.
That Psycho Las Vegas lineup is already fucking bananas and they’ve only just started with the reveal.