What are we talking about when we’re talking about heavy metal? Is the term just a hedge that lumps loud guitar music under the designation “heavy,” as if all music made without guitars is “light”? And what happens when metal embraces the rhythms, samples and language of hip-hop to the extent that, say, Korn make a record without guitars? Somehow, we’re at a point where it doesn’t matter. Fifteen years ago, if you were into the Clash, it was perfectly logical that you abhorred heavy metal; punks weren’t friendly with metalheads. But there’s Joe Strummer on the recent South Park-inspired CD Chef Aid, alongside Ozzy Osbourne and System of a Down. Who’s buying this? Some twin-headed offspring?
Whatever the cause, hard/heavy music has returned to the big time in the last two years. The first OzzFest, in 1997, featured Marilyn Manson and a re-formed Black Sabbath, and it was the year’s second-highest-grossing tour package behind Lilith Fair. Last fall’s Family Values Tour, with Korn, Ice Cube and Rammstein, did well enough for its promoters to immediately announce a sequel.
Let’s try to be specific about what metal means: aggression and guitars; tattoos and thrash; endless songs in the key of E, with special tunings to make them sound slate cold and disturbing; maybe a nod to the Nineties with a smidgen of hip-hop or electronics (but, wait – what do you call Rage Against the Machine? what’s Rob Zombie?); mostly white (although there are creditable black, Mexican, Cuban, Armenian and Japanese metal bands); nothing to do with the precious collegiate “indie” aesthetic, though death/black/dark/doom metal forms a distinct underground entity whose foremost practitioners tour college towns … ah, forget it.
Here are the ten most important bands making hard and heavy music in 1999:
Latest Projects: Follow the Leader; will tour with Rob Zombie this spring and then lead the second Family Values Tour Influences: Ministry, Faith No More, Cypress Hill, Suicidal Tendencies, the flamboyant self-loathing of Henry Rollins, the maladjusted speed-addict vibe of Bobcat Goldthwaite Shred Style: Whiny rap metal Lair: Bakersfield, California Hardness Scale: 7 Lyrics: “In the past I was known as a freak/Had no friends, picked on ’cause I was weak/Save my ass, I got into this band/Never thought the band would pick on the man” (“Reclaim My Place”) The Deal: Neither as far into rap as Limp Bizkit nor as European techno as Rammstein, Korn have created the center of the new-metal spectrum by being just a bit different from the stereotypes. They have benefited from a little noise art from guitarists Head and Munky, and striking lyrics by Jonathan Davis, whose freaky/ kinky/comfortable-with-his-body persona (an innovation after three decades of metal that started with cucumbers in crotches and, even by the Nineties, basically ignored the subject of women) enables him to get away with misogynous/gross-out/homophobic songs. Revealing Fact: Three of the five Korn members are married, with kids, to their hometown girlfriends.
Latest Projects: Chaosphere, their third full-length album Influences: Rush, Cynic, Chick Corea Elektric Band Shred Style: A.P. trig metal Lair: Stockholm Hardness Scale: 8 Lyrics: “An even strobe,a pulse of flashing hate lights of synthetic souls, mass-produced/Hammered into shape, a sign of times, dreams turn into systems” (“Future Breed Machine”) The Deal: It has taken Meshuggah nearly ten years to get any audience outside Sweden. This music, as complex as metal gets, is about polyrhythms, with the shouted singing (in English and Swedish) of Jens Kidman secondary to the rhythm section’s carefully composed thrash mazes. Revealing Fact: Meshuggah cite Earth, Wind and Fire as a prime inspiration.
Latest Projects: Official Live: 101 Proof; opening for Black Sabbath this winter; a new studio CD is due in summer. Influences: Black Sabbath, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles Shred Style: Unpretentious, ferociously communicative metal with a vestigial Southern-rock stomp, the occasional racing pulse from hardcore, and Eighties-style guitar solos complete with whistle-bomb finales. Lair: New Orleans, Dallas Hardness Scale: 9 Lyrics: “I’m becoming more than a man, more than you ever were…. I’m born again with snake’s eyes, becoming god-size” (“Becoming”) The Deal: Pantera are the closest a platinum band has gotten to the impenetrable codes and noise of underground metal. Starting out in ’83 as a mousse-and-lip-gloss band influenced by Van Halen, Pantera graduated to their present roaches-from-the-bunker look and sound after ’89, when they signed to a major label; guitarist Diamond Darrell became Dimebag Darrell. Bellowing singer Philip Anselmo lives in New Orleans, where he associates with the bona fide underground bands Down, Eyehategod and Soilent Green. Without voice-altering mechanisms or drum triggers, Pantera’s aggro is all-natural, and the band is positioned to be the still-relevant old-school figureheads if metal should regain its former prominence. Revealing Fact: In Pantera’s new long-form home video, 3 – Watch It Go, a roadie has a boil on his ass lanced.
Latest Projects: Beyond Reasonable Doubt Influences: Brutal Truth, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Voivod, Joe Henderson Shred Style: Progressive New York metal. Lair: Brooklyn Hardness Scale: 6 Lyrics: “Ignite the flammables delirious/The fragrance of the thief/Inconspicuous application of abrasions on tender skin/Adapting/Mental vomiting/spew” (“Paradigm Shift”) The Deal: Mix a large dose of jagged speed-riffing with electric-piano jazz; add experimental electronic jams and hip-hop. Candiria’s accomplishment is impressive: competence, at least, in every direction they attempt and total disregard for the boundaries of metal’s subgenres. Still, those into progressive metal will approach it first, jazzheads second.
Queens of the Stone Age
Latest Projects: Queens of the Stone Age Influences: The Stooges, Can Shred Style: Contempo stoner rock Lair: Palm Desert, California Hardness scale: 5 Lyrics: “Point and shoot, I know just what you mean/In a world that’s full of shit and gasoline/One dog’s dead, one’s on the phone/Just leave a lung or leave it alone” (“Mexicola”) The Deal: QOTSA are the baby of singer-guitarist Josh Homme, a former member of Kyuss, whose long, slow-evolving jams and refreshing abandonment of hard-rock orthodoxy made them a cult interest for indie-rock-heads. Revealing Fact: Homme prefers that the band not be categorized as heavy metal.
Latest Projects: Soulfly Influences: Sepultura, Black Sabbath, Jorge Ben Shred Style: Meat-and-potatoes power metal, with the occasional U-turn into Afro-Brazilian percussion. Lair: Phoenix (relocated from Brazil) Hardness scale: 7 Lyrics: “No bullshit/No slave ship/No muthafucking Hootie and the Blowfish/No radio songs … no follow none/No politricks” (“No”) The Deal: Max Cavalera left the Brazilian metal band Sepultura in 1996 and assembled Soulfly. Dipping into loose, hippie-style jamming, they find a way to make metal a communal music, and Cavalera continues on his path toward becoming the Bob Marley of metal. Where others paint fantasias of devils and war machines, Cavalera’s songs are inspired by rain-forest Indians and Brazilian slave uprisings. Revealing Fact: Cavalera has sought collaborations with Limp Bizkit’s DJ Lethal, Brazilian pop genius Carlinhos Brown and Jonathan Davis of Korn.
Latest Projects: Garage Inc. (double CD); Cunning Stunts (long-form concert video) Influences: Black Sabbath, Diamond Head, Misfits Shred Style: Van Cleef & Arpels metal Lair: San Francisco Hardness scale: 7 Lyrics: “Spit it up/Spit it out now/You bit more than you need/Now you’re chokin’ on the bad seed” (“Bad Seed”) The Deal: Up until the turn of the Nineties, Metallica stood at the terminus of everything heavy metal was about, including its side streams of punk and thrash. Since then, James Hetfield and company have become full-fledged rock stars with a fat, comfortable, limousine sound. They lost some orthodoxy, gained a lot more fans and did it all with consummate grace. Currently in a retrograde hard-rock bag for its original material, the band flirts with everything from hardcore to Bob Seger to the speed metal in its own back catalog. Revealing Fact: Drummer Lars Ulrich collects modern art.
Latest Projects: Reunion; on tour in the U.S. through February Influences: Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Aleisteir Crowley Shred Style: The fountainhead, dude. Lair: Los Angeles and London Hardness Scale: 8 Lyrics: “Got no religion, don’t need no friends/Got all I want, and I don’t need to pretend/Don’t try to reach me, ’cause I’d tear up your mind/I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind” (“Supernaut”) The Deal: Condensing psychedelia to a tar essence in the early Seventies, they made monuments out of riffs, and comic-book-horror/war/psychological-deviance lyrics commonplace; nearly every metal band has copied Sabbath’s basic sound and style. An oldies band, sure, but what an oldies band.
Latest Projects: Sewn Mouth Secrets Influences: Black Sabbath, Melvins Shred Style: Swamp metal Lair: Metairie, Louisiana Hardness Scale: 10 Lyrics: “Slap to the face . . . for disgrace … a father’s pride … fulfill his dream … I hate pride… not a part of my dreams … tension builds … idols destroyed” (“Emptiness Found”) The Deal: Leader-guitarist Brian Patton double-times in Eyehategod, whose clever idea in the early-Nineties era of speed metal was to play as slowly as possible. Soilent Green are less lumbering; their songs are run-on collections of sicko psychosexual ideas, beginning and ending with no particular fanfare as if cropped by razors, constantly changing uptempos and riffs. This is solitary music for the lonely and pissed-off that leaves behind shock-horror theatrics to reach for a place that’s almost soulful.
Latest Projects: Formulas Fatal to the Flesh Influences: Van Halen, Venom Shred Style: Death metal with Sumerian-myth subtexts Lair: Tampa, Florida Hardness Scale: 8 Lyrics: “Before that which is, all was not/Less the Sweet Waters of Habsu/Chthhulhu Amah-Ushumgal-Anna/Triumvirate of Most High” (“Heaving Earth”) The Deal: Formed in the mid-Eighties, when the Necronomicon (the source of the fascination with Sumerian culture) was the bible of true-blue metalheads, Morbid Angel have sailed through the perilous straits of death metal into the Ozz-Fest age. Their music is a blizzard of fast, dark sounds – roared Sumerian lyrics, guitar arpeggios and electronics-assisted drums. Revealing Fact: Bandleader Trey Azagthoth, whose speech is full of invented phrases like umberhulk and paradigm scramblers, is a devotee of self-help guru Tony Robbins.