Sleep, The Sciences | ★★★★
At the Gates, To Drink From the Night Itself | ★★★ 1/2
Burn the Priest, Legion: XX | ★★★
Five Finger Death Punch | And Justice for None ★★
In the late Seventies, heavy metal transcended musical genres and became a culture. Metalheads grew their hair as long as they wanted, wore denim battle jackets and studded black leather and congregated at concerts by their favorite bands. It's a grassroots phenomenon Saxon chronicled with the lyrics, "Denim and leather/Brought us all together/It was you that set the spirit free."
Metal is still about togetherness, it's just fellowship in factions. There has always been a great divide between metal's mainstream and underground, and it's grown ever wider since traditional media like radio and MTV have disappeared and the Internet has allowed micro-subgenres to flourish. The past month or so has seen a spate of albums by headbangers of all levels, from middle-of-the-road head nodders Godsmack to never-ready-for-primetime melodic death-metal stalwarts At the Gates, all of varying degrees of quality. If you go to concerts by these artists, though, the only connecting thread you might see are fans wearing Slayer and Black Sabbath T-shirts – two groups who've recently mounted their final world tours. It's like different coasts of the same country. Regardless, there's still great music happening everywhere.
Sleep, the Oakland-based doom-metal group, were an underground metal group whose legend has only grown since they put out the hour-long swan song, "Jerusalem," in 1999. (It's since been reissued as the director's cut Dopesmoker, earning a place as one of Rolling Stone's Greatest Metal Albums of All Time). They've attracted a cult following (thanks in part to their two main dudes finding success in the groups High on Fire and Om) and reunited with help from new drummer Jason Roeder of Neurosis. This year, they surprise-released The Sciences, their first record in nearly two decades, on what ought to be a day of rest for the group, 4/20. With freight-train heavy riffs so indebted to Sabbath's Tony Iommi that he should get royalties, trippy lyrics about diverse subjects such as weed, ganja and pot, and endless groove for days on each of their songs, they've made an album that sounds exactly how Sleep should sound in 2018. So far, it's sold quicker than any record the band members have put out to date, inside or outside of the group.
At the Gates wasn't the biggest nor the best-selling band to claim the Nineties' locavore subgenre "Swedish melodic death metal" (that would be In Flames), but they were inarguably the best, particularly on 1995's Slaughter of the Soul (another one of RS' Best Metal Albums). The band just closed the four-year gap since their reunion album, At War With Reality, by issuing To Drink From the Night Itself. Although the new record doesn't exactly expound on their formula – tremulous rhythms paired with truly singable guitar leads – it does contain some memorable songs in "Palace of Lepers" and "The Chasm." For a band taking a similar approach, the sloth-like doomsters in Yob, who once topped RS' Metal Albums of the Year, are still worming their way out people's subwoofers on the forthcoming Our Raw Heart, which sounds like Black Flag played at 16 r.p.m.
The most promising mid-level metal this year came from the guitarist of an A-list band: System of a Down's Daron Malakian. The song "Lives," which will appear on the upcoming album by his side project Scars on Broadway, Dictator, sounds like classic System through and through – from its galloping swagger (paired with a disco beat) to Malakian's operatic command, "everyone get high." Perhaps because it's not a proper System release or maybe because it's so delightfully quirky, the song has yet to make it onto Billboard's Mainstream Rock songs chart. It's also the sort of genre mishmash that isn't metal enough for the "true" headbangers and maybe a bit too raw for mainstream ears.
Another band that's existed in the netherworld between widespread fame and indie credibility for two decades now is Lamb of God, who positioned themselves as a Southern-metal replacement for Pantera when that band faded away. They've dabbled with commercialism over the years (their last album, VII: Sturm und Drang, featured honest-to-Beelzebub singing instead of growling here and there) and they know how create riffs with hooks. They decided to make a punk-rock left turn on their latest, Legion: XX, a record they're issuing under their original name, Burn the Priest. It features covers of tunes by Melvins, Agnostic Front and Big Black, among others, to varying degrees of success. They sound best on songs with some semblance of catchiness like Bad Brains' "I Against I." You could call it Garage Days Re-Re-Re-Revisited or "The SpaghettiOs Incident?", but either way it will be curious to see what they do next.
For all the freedom bands in the lower rungs of the food chain enjoy, though, the mainstream remains relatively stagnant and safe. That may have something to do with pleasing radio programmers, who are still holding onto what they can of the coveted 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers covet, or it could be some Darwinian fight-or-trite survival reaction. Two decades ago, it wouldn't have been unusual to hear a diverse trio of songs by Metallica, Type O Negative and Korn on the same hard-rock station, but a glance at Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart today shows a shockingly homogenous selection of popular metal.
The top three songs are, in effect, interchangeable: Godsmack's "Bulletproof" is just same over-produced, mid-tempo pop metal they've been pedaling for years, Bad Wolves' "Zombie" is a testosterone-pumping Cranberries cover that owes a debt to Godsmack. Shinedown, the most exciting group of the bunch, presents only a slightly more textured version of the same sound with "Devil." Everything is compressed and tied in a bow for what Anthrax once called "packaged rebellion."
The best-selling heavy band right now, Five Finger Death Punch, have eked out their position with steroidal braggadocio and jingoism. Their current chart hit "Sham Pain" is a slick rap-rocker where frontman Ivan Moody, who embodies all of Phil Anselmo's glory-days belligerence but none of the poetry, calls out TMZ and metal-news site Blabbermouth like the Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion throwaway track "Get in the Ring." It's all piss and vinegar and posturing.
The best mainstream releases this year are the new albums from Judas Priest, whose Firepower got surprising support from radio, and Ghost, a group of theatrical Swedish shock rockers who've embraced metal's imagery and laced it with LSD (or maybe bath salts). The latter group's recent single, "Rats," splits the difference between Dokken and Iron Butterfly – and it contains a catchy chorus to boot. Over the last decade, they've climbed out of the underground, where they were first pegged as a Mercyful Fate rip-off, to the point where they're winning Grammys and headlining the occasional arena. The way people respond to their upcoming album, Prequelle, will determine their future.
Album sales in general remain a nebulous signpost of success for metal bands. Where rap and pop fans stream their favorite songs in the millions, headbangers still buy physical albums – though in lower quantities than in the past. The heaviest bands that are selling the most LPs in recent weeks are Five Finger Death Punch, who sold 60,000 pure albums of And Justice for None (with only 10,000 LP-equivalent streams), and radio-metal stalwarts Sevendust and breakout Bad Wolves, who've sold 16,000 and 15,000 pure records respectively. It's not victory-lap numbers for the latter two, but it's enough to get them out on the road. Comparatively, Sleep debuted at 11,000 copies, Shinedown at 55,000, the metal-adjacent Maynard James Keenan side project A Perfect Circle sold 63,000 and Metallica's latest still sells around 1,400 copies a week. It's a wild, unpredictable world.
It will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future, too. When the culture around metal changes, it's usually at a glacial pace. There is still an indefensible shortage of women making waves in the genre – the Top 40 Mainstream Rock Songs feature only two women singers, the Linda Perry-produced Dorothy and Judas Priest-assisted In This Moment – and the genre remains the most reliable musical source of White Male Aggression. (Side note: a disturbing trend of late has been the way the Internet rightfully skewers Nazi metal bands but simultaneously gives them a platform they never would have had otherwise.)
In some ways, metal is a genre in retrograde because it's a culture. Where pop and hip-hop fans clamor for the next big thing, metalheads take pride in growing up with their favorite bands, which explains why a lot of the top-selling artists first cut their teeth more than a decade ago. It's a sense of heritage, and it makes it harder for younger bands to gain a foothold. That's not to say there aren't younger bands making waves in the genre. Code Orange topped several publications' metal album of the year lists last year with their third album, Forever (including Rolling Stone's), and Parkway Drive, who've somehow put out six albums since forming in 2003, notched a Top 40 album with their melodic metalcore offering Reverence. They just have a long way to go before they're accepted as canon.
What will remain the same as time goes on, is the way metal unites the underdogs. No matter where you come from or what you look like, metal concerts, at least from my experience, have been a place of inclusion. It's like a club where the cost of membership is simply knowing – or liking – the music; there's a unique, implicit sense of camaraderie at metal concerts that doesn't carry over to other genres. After all, there's strength in numbers – something that Judas Priest's Rob Halford spelled out perfectly while defining the genre's spirit on 1984's "Defenders of the Faith": "Let's all join forces/Rule with iron hand/And prove to all the world/Metal rules the land."