Maybe it’s me, maybe it was the high school burnouts who listened to the music and glared whenever I walked into the bathroom, but I am not, nor have I ever been, a metalhead. Every so often, though, I need a jolt of metal thunder, be it an oldie like Black Sabbath’s ”Paranoid” or the recent aural junk food of Motley Crue’s ”Dr. Feelgood” single or anything by those bellowing cartoons Danzig. The riffs crank up, the adrenaline kicks in, and suddenly you feel as if you can conquer the planet and squash and humiliate your enemies — for a few minutes, anyway.
Lately, those kicks have been few and far between. With a couple of exceptions (Megadeth’s 1992 ”Skin o’ My Teeth” or AC/DC’s 1990 single ”Moneytalks”), too much current metal sounds stale — and I may not be alone in my qualms. In the last few years, the music has taken an ominous plunge not just in creative oomph but also in sales. As of last week, only five metal albums resided in the Billboard Top 100 album chart. Veterans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest have run their course, and poodle-hair pop-metal icons like Poison, Extreme, Motley Crue, and Warrant have had to contend with flop albums or potentially crippling personnel changes, or both. Add it up, and it becomes clear that despite the crossover popularity of the likes of Metallica, metal is in semi-disarray, and one era has drawn to a close. But what will take its place?
First, remember that heavy metal has heard its death knell rung many times during the last 25 years, and each time the music has come back stronger. With founding fathers like Led Zeppelin, metal crawled from the murk in the late ’60s and left an impressive trail of behemoth stompings. By the end of the ’70s, metal had dried out, only to be reinvented at the dawn of the ’80s by such lovable and more commercial bands as Def Leppard and Van Halen. The era of the so-called hair bands, who owed their bank accounts to MTV, dawned in the mid-’80s; with it, metal became bigger and more profitable than ever.
In fact, mainstream success was part of the problem. In trying to appeal to as many people as possible — especially women, through air-inflated power ballads like Whitesnake’s ”Here I Go Again” — metal began losing its satanic majesty. It didn’t take a rock critic to realize that it had become neutered: Just try to find the power-chord catharsis in a Cinderella record. Fans who liked their metal hard and heavy turned instead to numbing subgenres like speed and thrash (early Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies) and death metal. Some good music has grown from those offshoots, like the beautifully produced cathedrals of Slayer. But for the most part, the subgenres are a dead end. They may speak to the apathy, disgust, and apocalyptic fears of their fans, but the styles themselves speak to a limited audience.
Other distortion-starved headbangers pin hope on the metal scene that has emerged from the alternative-rock community. Alice in Chains, the fast-rising Stone Temple Pilots (whose hooky Core is heading toward the top 10), Soundgarden, and Helmet resurrect the grim, thunderous sludge of ’70s metal, with a nod to punk. Yet those bands lack some of the qualities that make the best metal fun: a bawdy sense of humor, lusty front men, and melodies you can sink a chain saw into. Instead, the new metalists are rooted in the drone and opaque lyrics of alternative rock. You keep hoping they’ll loosen up and do something just a little bit silly.
Well, maybe not quite as silly as the new album by ex-Crue singer Vince Neil. Still, records like Alice in Chains’ slithering Dirt at least have the power to make you forget such sideshows. So does the ongoing bond between rap and metal. Anthrax and Biohazard have recorded with Public Enemy and Onyx, respectively, and hip-hoppers like Cypress Hill rap to the occasional metal riff. The mix doesn’t always work, but when it does, it drags metal back to its role as the voice of the underdogs, a role rap currently fills. With that type of sonic input, a new metal will undoubtedly emerge. After all, it has to, for one thing never changes: There will always be a new generation aching to vent its frustrations or declare its self-worth the old-fashioned way —by cranking the basement stereo or kicking a cushioned seat at an arena near you.