Shadow of the Horns: Breaking the hipster barrier

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Khemmis Shadow of the Horns

I’ve never liked the term “hipster metal.” It’s condescending. It’s exclusionary. It’s dismissive of anyone outside of metal’s clubhouse, and as I’ve argued before, that’s not a great attitude to have. As far as I’m concerned, this is a big tent and we can fit a lot of people underneath.

However, there is some truth to the idea that certain metal simply appeals to people that don’t already have the blood of the hesher coursing through their veins. You can call it crossover metal if you want, though that implies a certain level of mainstream appeal. And that’s true of a band like Mastodon, who’s on a major label, sells a lot of records and plays large venues—yet they developed an audience outside of metal’s tried-and-true fairly early on, which certainly didn’t hurt their ability to hoist themselves up to the next level. But more accurately “hipster” metal is applied to underground stuff that’s more avant garde and stylish—anything from the minimalist drones of Sunn O))) to the blackgaze emo anthems of Deafheaven. Those are both bands who have made some amazing music, but they’re also Pitchfork-approved, which earns skepticism from anyone who doesn’t like indie dorks interfering in their headbanging. And, I mean, I can’t really blame them. But that’s not Deafheaven’s fault.

There are limits to what so-called “hipsters” will go for in metal, however. Old-school bands such as Black Sabbath or Slayer are essentially gimmes. Controversial figures like Burzum gain attention based on a kind of outsider appeal (don’t get me started on that). And any band that essentially flirts with sounds that are already appealing to an indie crowd—shoegaze, post-rock, punk, post-hardcore, post-punk—make for easy crossovers. But when it comes to bands whose language is that of classic metal in its most devout forms, or even more difficult—prog rock—it can be a hard sell.

A funny thing happened to me recently that I think illustrates this well. I went to see Khemmis in San Diego recently during their tour with Oathbreaker. Both are bands that I thoroughly enjoy, and have written about on this page. But it was also a Monday night and I had to pick my battles during a busy, sleep-deprived week, so I left after Khemmis. (Note: Do as I say, not as I do, please support touring bands, I was sleepy.) I missed Oathbreaker, and look forward to seeing them hopefully later this year, but Khemmis ruled—classic heavy metal with the epic aesthetics of doom and a great balance of growled and heroically sung vocals. I was stoked, and I left knowing I had seen a good show.

The next morning, I saw an Instagram post from someone talking about how great Oathbreaker was, but that they couldn’t stand Khemmis. A few days later, I’m introduced to a friend of a friend that was also at the show, and when I mentioned I was into Khemmis he said, “that band sucked.” I don’t know this guy, or why he felt compelled to introduce himself to me by letting me know he thinks I have bad taste, but that’s fine. At first I was a little confused, but looking back I think I understand the barrier. In theory, a tour between Oathbreaker and Khemmis should absolutely work—they’re both younger metal bands that offer new spins on existing sounds, and both are critically acclaimed. Khemmis’ Hunted was even Decibel‘s Album of the Year in 2016 (and high on our list, too). But they’re ultimately bands from two different worlds, and I don’t just mean the continental distance between Belgium and the U.S.

Oathbreaker is a metal band that appeals naturally to indie listeners. They’re similar to Deafheaven in their fusion of heavy music with non-metal elements, and likewise similar to Chelsea Wolfe, whose darkwave sound incorporates elements of doom. Khemmis, however, is rooted in classic metal. Early Judas Priest, Candlemass, Cirith Ungol—the kind of metal that old-schoolers worship, but fairly recent converts would have trouble getting into. (The cover art with wizards and valkyries and whatnot kind of bears that out, too.) And when you add Phil Prendergast’s earnest, mighty, clean-sung vocals, it adds a layer of seriousness that’s, well, not very cool. If he had done it through Auto-Tune a la Bon Iver or something, then maybe they’d break the irony barrier, but who would want that? So maybe Khemmis might be metal for people who already love metal—like me. But the barrier for entry is a bit higher for those just outside.

There’s a lot of bands like this. Pallbearer, who are fairly similar to Khemmis in a lot of ways, got an early boost from outlets like Stereogum and Pitchfork, which helped them exposure-wise, though the recent 6.0 they got for new album Heartless—which Treble’s Langdon Hickman described as “a Boston album” (in a good way and if you don’t like Boston then get out of here)—suggests that their uncool influences aren’t for everyone (and anecdotally, I’ve observed this as well—though ironically it’s probably going to end up their best-selling album regardless if my prediction is correct). But go beyond doom metal, and you’ll find that there’s actually a hell of a lot of metal that’s bound to evade the sensibilities of indie listeners. Most death metal, for instance, is going to have trouble crossing over. Cannibal Corpse just isn’t going to make a lot of sense to an LCD Soundsystem listener. And the more a metal band indulges in the sprawl and complexities of prog—be it Opeth, Hammers of Misfortune or Gojira—the less likely you’re going to see Mac DeMarco t-shirts at the show. I even doubt that Baroness would have made the same kind of crossover as they did early on were they to make their debut with Purple, a truly excellent album that just happens to be steeped in dad rock.

I’m just as guilty of being the guy at the show who shrugs at the band I don’t get. I went to see Kylesa a few years ago, for instance, only to be encounter a slow, underwhelming and kind of annoying show by Weedeater. Now, I think I get the appeal of Weedeater, but their southern sludge to me pales in comparison to the more abrasive style pioneered by Eyehategod. Plus I’m not a stoner, so I don’t know if that makes a difference. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.

To circle back to my original point, as much as I find the hostility toward “hipster metal” completely obnoxious and dismissive, I think I understand why it exists. And that’s because metal is a lifestyle for many—a commitment—where a lot of listeners are seen as tourists. That’s not a statement on the bands so much as the fans, but it’s also not really fair to someone just getting into metal either. Someone who hates a dorky ’80s metal band now could very well learn to love them later on. Trust me: I’ve done it dozens, maybe hundreds of times. But nobody should be shut out on the basis of not being committed enough or not metal enough, whatever that means. Bands like Oathbreaker and Khemmis should tour together, because while a couple of dinguses might turn their nose up at the idea of straight-faced trad-doom (or maybe my experience was just limited to a couple of tasteless jokers), there’s a better chance that even more people will discover something cool and new. And if a really good band can expand their audience, I’m always in favor of it.

But then again, I’m just some jerk on the Internet who likes Father John Misty, so you don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to. But in this jerk’s opinion, an open mind—for the heshers and the hipsters alike—is always the best approach.

The best metal tracks of April 2017

Crypt Rot – “Chambers of Torment”

Southern Lord Records seems to already be on a pretty insane roll in 2017 with a pair of unstoppable metal releases from Darkest Hour and Power Trip. Crypt Rot is shaping up to be another standout for the label this year, with a truly unhinged death metal sound that’s truly nasty. Truly, truly nasty. “Chambers of Torment” isn’t a particularly long song, which is probably for the best. The band’s brutal approach is one thing, but Ryan Sposito’s vocals take it a step farther, his abrasive cries like the sound of a man very literally at his wit’s end, drowning in his own madness. It’s harrowing, but then again it also kicks ass and has a badass guitar solo and just kind of destroys shit for two and a half minutes. That’s really when death metal is at its best—when it’s intense enough to be a little uncomfortable, but rocks so hard that you can’t pull yourself away.

[from Embryonic Devils, out April 28; Southern Lord]


Succumb – “Survival”

Bay Area brutalists Succumb make metal that’s seemingly always on the brink of falling apart. Their new track “Survival” seems to launch at full speed, galloping along at a pace that would appear to be beyond the limits of human capabilities. It’s pretty nutso; they’re cramming various aspects of black metal, death metal and grindcore into one nasty and hyper-aggressive fusion. Yet there’s a compelling sense of atmosphere about it all, a kind of terrifying overall sensibility that’s somewhere between the unrelenting blackened prog of Krallice and the best horror soundtracks. It’s reasonably long at six minutes, but in that time they do so much that it almost feels like three tracks. So it’s best to queue it up, get comfortable and then steel yourself for the onslaught that comes marching your way.

[from Succumb, out May 5; The Flenser]


Extremity – “Crepuscular Crescendo”

It’s a hell of a month for death metal, isn’t it? You have to appreciate the sheer ridiculousness of Extremity’s whole thing. Their new album is called Extremely Fucking Dead, which is amazing on several fronts. It’s not like there are degrees of being dead, for instance, and that extra “Fucking” just kind of drives the point home that they’re not not fucking around here. Pun sort of intended. Their brand of death metal is less avant garde or experimental than just straight-up loud, heavy and intense, and for that reason “Crepuscular Crescendo” is extremely easy to love if you’re a fan of old-school death metal (and who isn’t? A lot of people actually—you read the longform part of this, right? Right?!). It’s death metal that isn’t interested in reinventing the catherine wheel but made by musicians who know how to form their misanthropy into badass anthems.

[from Extremely Fucking Dead, out April 7; 20 Buck Spin]


Loss – “All Grows on Tears”

There’s a pretty wide expanse of doom metal at this stage in history, from the classic rock and prog-influenced anthems of Pallbearer to the dense riffs of Windhand to the old-school heavy metal history lessons of Magic Circle. Loss, however, are a particularly slow and mournful sort of funeral doom that is definitely not for everyone, especially those who prefer their metal to come in the form of righteous thrash metal riffs. “All Grows on Tears” is beautiful and painful, a highly melodic composition that showcases the sophistication of the band’s songwriting. The truly weird element here (which you’re likely used to if you’ve heard their last couple of albums) is Mike Meacham’s vocals, which are a truly guttural growl that kind of hovers in the background, almost like the breathing of a horrific beast inside of its lair as it sleeps. It all comes together surprisingly well, however, as Meacham’s growls are more atmospheric than disruptive. It’s the sort of doom metal that requires a bit of patience, but it’s well worth the investment in time and interest.

[from Horizonless, out May 19; Profound Lore]


Mutoid Man – “Melt Your Mind”

With so much death and doom and raw, gut-churning intensity this month, I figured it’d be best to end things with some party metal. Mutoid Man’s fusion of stoner rock and punk is simultaneously the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of listeners who don’t really do the death/doom fusion of pure ugliness, but they’re also so unapologetically rock-and-fucking-roll that hipsters probably wouldn’t know what to do with them. Their loss! Mutoid Man is just too much fun not to love, and “Melt Your Mind” is two minutes of insanely fun punk-metal chicanery that’ll make you want to jump on your couch and start showing off your sweet air guitar moves. Because that’s the kind of behavior that Mutoid Man inspires. Embrace it; metal should strive to be this much fun more often.

[from War Moans, out June 2; Sargent House]

Piece by Piece

The best metal albums of the month:

The Bug vs. Earth‘s Concrete Desert: Not really a metal album, but rather a doom-electronics record. Earth’s Dylan Carlson has been more in post-rock territory than drone-doom for a while, though this is definitely dark and heavy, pairing his ominous soundscapes with the beats and ambience of The Bug’s Kevin Martin, putting together a dystopian score that feels crushing even when it’s barely there. (Ninja Tune)

Mastodon‘s Emperor of Sand: A new Mastodon album is always something to be excited about, but Emperor of Sand definitely sounds like their best in years. It’s been described often as their best since Crack the Skye, though that one hasn’t held up well for me over the years (it’s fine, just doesn’t pack the punch of Blood Mountain). This is the band at their most concise, punchy and heavy, playing rock ‘n’ roll with badass thunder like fellow riffmeisters Baroness, Kvelertak and Torche. It rules, basically. (Reprise)

Pallbearer‘s Heartless: I’ve been waiting for a while to see Pallbearer basically rise to the level of bands such as Mastodon or Baroness and claim their throne as the Next Big Metal Band. They’re getting there slowly but surely; the longer compositions, prog- and classic-rock influences and tendency toward spacious material doesn’t always lend itself well to crossover material. But there’s at least a couple of ass-kicking singles on this one, plus a fair share of breathtaking epics. A contender that’ll likely be sticking around come year-end time. (Profound Lore)

Venenum‘s Trance of Death: Death metal has been having a good few years of late, outdoing black metal for sheer weirdness and innovative aggression via conceptual and alien sounds. Venenum, from Germany, is doing some truly weird and inspired stuff on Trance of Death, which at times makes them feel a bit like the death metal counterpart to Oranssi Pazuzu’s black metal psychedelics. They riff hard and they play furiously, but it always seems like they’re not bound by an earthly tether. In space, nobody can hear you tremolo pick… (The Ajna Offensive)

Woe‘s Hope Attrition: Badass, melodic yet intense black metal. Complete with a song that destroys Donald Trump. What’s not to love? (Vendetta)


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