Does Underground Metal Have a Place in the Mainstream?


With anything in life, more awareness brings more potential controversy. So it goes in the world of underground metal, largely because these days, print and online publications primarily known for repping indie rock, pop, and hip-hop artists are covering music considered so far away from mainstream music and culture it ain’t even funny. When The New Yorker lauds the talents of a particular black metal band, or a band like stoner/sludgers Red Fang appear on The Late Show With David Letterman, questions are raised: Who gets coverage and who doesn’t? Do the writers behind these articles know what they’re writing about? And will coverage outside the metal press for an underground metal band help or hinder the legitimacy of that band among their loyal followers?

The appeal of metal has never just been the music; it’s a celebration of the aggression that energizes the listener, that acknowledges the natural, primal urges we’re encouraged to suppress in our regular, day-to-day life. It’s always appealed to those who didn’t want to fit into the norm, or couldn’t fit into the norm.

The passion metal fans have for the music commonly spills into the comments sections on metal sites, and manifests in the posts fans write on their own blogs. There’s always a dissenting view, and most often, there is no way to satisfy a disgruntled fan who feels either that the coverage a band is getting is not “metal” enough, or that a band is “too metal” to be included on a musically diverse website.

As metal fans, we have an urge to protect what the music means to us, to keep it for ourselves. However, the passion to keep metal separate from the mainstream not only hinders the promotion of artists — in the age of the internet, it just doesn’t make sense.

“Honestly, I don’t see how people can be so territorial when black metal bands have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and paid publicists, for that matter,” says Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy. “But people are always worried about things like that. Whether it’s metal or punk or garage rock or underground rap or whatever, folks are territorial about their scenes.”

In an article titled “In Defense of Elitism,” writer Corey van de Pol argues the opposite point — that criticism based on elitism, which van de Pol describes as “(a) defense of the values of a genre,” is acceptable. “They [fans] are trying to preserve their way of doing things which is different from what the herd wants to do, while the herd wants to appropriate the mantle of these rebellious groups while continuing — underneath the aesthetic — to do exactly what the herd always does,” he writes.

Journalist Jonathan Dick has built a strong reputation through his website Steel for Brains, which features thought-provoking long-form interviews and reviews with critically acclaimed metal artists. He believes that fans’ demands as to what they want from the genre are responsible for the fact that there is so much criticism of mainstream coverage. “Does any other genre of music demand thinkpieces about thinkpieces or about how we think about thinkpieces that think about things?” he asks. “What other genre demands or evokes that kind of meta-criticism?”

He also questions the whole idea of underground metal: “Terminologies we grew up with like ‘underground’ and ‘obscure’ or even ‘mysterious’ are virtually useless now because of the Internet and social media. Even if you do only cassette releases, don’t have a Facebook page, don’t have a Twitter, and never tour, and never do interviews – you’re still not underground. The second the hesher in Bumfuck, Alabama tweets something about how awesome your band is then you’re no longer underground. You are, in fact, far above ground.”

The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.


Metal journalist Adrien Begrand believes that the music that received comparatively wide coverage in 2013 is symbolic of the notion that perhaps the culture is staid, which might make metal offerings in mainstream publications more palatable. “As a devotee of the history of the genre, it’s always fascinated me just where the music could go next,” he wrote on his blog Basement Galaxy at the end of 2013. “The thing is, though, as each post-millennial year goes by, the more apparent it is that heavy metal not only has limits, but has essentially reached that limit from an innovation standpoint.”

When Stosuy first introduced his metal column, “Show No Mercy,” on Pitchfork in 2006, the site had sporadically written about metal but wasn’t comprehensively covering it. Stosuy says he got “a ton of blowback… including one guy who said he wanted to crucify me to an upside-down cross.” These days, readers are more apt to appreciate the diversity of metal on the site, and he has recruited several respected metal writers who have their own specialties. “Each person comes to the table with their own interests, which tend to diverge here/there,” he explains. “This helps to keep things diverse, and allows for broader coverage.”

Neither Stosuy nor Fred Pessaro, editor-in-chief of VICE’s Noisey music channel, are flight-of-fancy dilettantes who think that profiling metal bands for the 18-35 demographic is somehow ironic or amusing. Both have established backgrounds as metal journalists, and several of their contributors — Noisey’s J. Bennett, who is one-half of the band Ides of Gemini, and Mish Way, who fronts the punk band White Lung — are working musicians in touring bands.

Referring to himself as an “underground music fan… period,” Pessaro has a long and successful history of booking metal and hardcore shows in New York, and before taking the helm at Noisey, he ran Brooklyn Vegan’s metal and hardcore section and was the editor at Invisible Oranges, one of the first metal blogs. Under his leadership, the metal coverage at Noisey has positioned underground music as a serious contender in the larger music scene. “My experience in the metal scene and working with metal bands will bring the right audiences to the site as well,” he says. “I like to think that over the years people have come to know and either trust, or distrust, my tastes when it comes to music.”

However, having the budget to pay for writers to cover metal also plays a big part in the increased coverage — and the budget comes from the genre’s growing popularity. “I’m not so naïve to think that… publications are not at least partially guided by ad revenue and music trends,” says Dick. “Trend denotes popularity and popularity denotes some form of large-scale exposure, good or bad. I guarantee you that those same metal writers from the ‘trendy’ music sites were listening to Amebix or Mournful Congregation long before some kid in Williamsburg bought his first pair of oversized lensless glasses and pre-faded Filosofem tee.”

Ultimately, what is most important is how mainstream coverage benefits the bands. Do they see an increase in album sales or attendance at shows? Journalist Kim Kelly, who writes for Pitchfork (where she specializes in underground black metal and doom bands), along with the UK metal mag Iron Fist, The FADER and several others, says the feedback she gets from bands she covers in her more mainstream writing gigs proves that they are. “Sometimes I’ll get an email asking if I have covered something recently, because the band saw a spike in Bandcamp sales and figured I was behind it! I know for a fact that my scribblings have made certain bands money, gotten them gigs, or helped them make valuable connections, and that’s all the justification I need to keep on keepin’ on.”

Kelly also mentions that despite the perception that mainstream attention leads to a loss of “underground” authenticity, bands know that it is in their best interest to play the game. “Musicians are generally grateful to have their art acknowledged, even if said acknowledgement comes from a publication they wouldn’t necessarily read themselves.”

“There is way too much bad music out there,” adds Pessaro. “The more coverage given by a larger outlet to expose good music, the better off we all are. It elevates us as music fans.”

Top image: Deafheaven