All of a sudden, heavy metal is becoming cool again. Demonized by the right wing, shirked by the critics, and scorned by pop fans, metal has long been loved by its devout fans, even after it was abandoned by the mainstream in the early 90s. Since then, "heavy metal" in America has become two dirty words, eliciting rolled eyes or amused smirks from its detractors. But for its legion of devoted followers, heavy metal has been a way of life and not a short-lived, vapid pop culture trend. Now they can feel vindicated that their cause is receiving new attention and renewed life.
Many will argue it never went away, it just mutated into genres like grunge. But traditional (read "old school") metal and many of its offspring have lain dormant amongst the mainstream, considered to be a musical dinosaur. Except that this beast ain't dead. "It's interesting for me being at a company that specializes in underground music and metal," says Relapse Records' self-proclaimed "cult leader" Matt Jacobson, "because ever since everyone was saying metal is dead, which was back around '92, our company's been doing nothing but growing and our sales doing nothing but increasing. I always thought it was funny when people were saying 'sales are down, metal is dead' and I'm saying 'that's funny, because we sold twice as much this year as last year.'"
As newer bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Deftones have taken the genre to new levels of sheer volume (and often times, that's about all), many industry types have also tried to rename metal to make it seem hipper. In the radio world, the "loud rock" format has become the euphemism for metal and heavy rock. The term is lame and redundant since rock by definition tends to be loud. Why not just call it what it is? "Anything that's been cutting-edge over the last 5 or 6 years, I'd call it metal," concurs Monte Connor, Vice President of A&R for Roadrunner Records, "but a lot of people wouldn't, and that's why they think metal has gone away."
The sad fact is that that the metal community is not as united as it once was. For many in the old school, the new school ain't cutting it, and vice versa. To the older fans, the newer bands understandably seem like trendy wannabes or cacophonous carbon copies of each other, and for younger fans, the metal of old means hair bands or monolithic 70s rockers. It's an unfortunate dichotomy. If you're around 30, it makes you feel like you're already out-of-touch.
Some elder statesman do like what's been going on recently. "Metal's definitely about the energy," states former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider. "One thing that was gone from metal for awhile and even though the music was metallic, nobody was calling it metal it was a lot more whiny than it was angry. To me, there was your happy metal and your party metal, and there was your angry metal, your Maidens and Twisteds and Priests. But now you're seeing that anger coming back to the new bands. It's not your brother's or your father's or your grandfather's metal, it's definitely a contemporary sound, but it's definitely metallic. Bands like Sevendust and Coal Chamber. I think it's great a form of expression for young people, for anybody, to vent."
Ultimately with the proliferation of new subgenres and a new generation of heavy rockers, the term metal now means different things to different people. It can be old school, new school, or now, old school reinvented. Connor offers a quick history lesson on the evolution of the genre. "Most people consider metal having been invented around '67 or '68," he says. "At that time, it wasn't called heavy metal yet, but bands like Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, and Deep Purple were metal. Then in the mid-70s, all of a sudden metal was Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Kiss, and AC/DC. Then in the 80s, metal was Warrant, Motley Crue, Winger, and hair metal, but also it was the thrash movement with Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth. Then in the early 90s, metal was Pantera and White Zombie, and now it's Korn, Deftones, Limp Bizkit, and Coal Chamber. As you can see, metal hasn't gone away, it's just changed categorization each time, putting on a new face and new sound."
Yet when many people speak of a metal revival these days, they are referring more to the days when heavyweights like Priest, Maiden, and Dio (and lightweights like Poison and Ratt) could play arenas. Snider is aware of this, too, since he has been hosting the nationally syndicated "House Of Hair" radio show. Naturally its success can be linked to the impending 80s revival we're going through. "The 90s were really the 70s disco era, and in the 80s, kids were wearing the Beatles and Doors jackets, and that used to make me nuts," he recalls. "In the 70s, kids in my high school were into the 50s. So it's like a 20-year thing. 'The House Of Hair' is on 65 markets, two hours a week of hair bands and heavy metal. Mainly the 80s, a little early 90s, a little 70s. We started 40 stations a year ago, now we're up to 65 stations, we're doing 20 shares, which is huge. And people are loving it."
Is the world ready for metal to conceivably reign anew?