Blitzkrieg #6: Metal’s Cult of Regression

I’m tired of metal nostalgia. I’m tired of new bands trying so hard (and often failing miserably) to sound and look like old bands. I’m especially tired of seeing two of my favorite bands, Mercyful Fate and Entombed, being shamelessly ripped off by new bands that seemingly come up out of the woodwork on a daily basis. I’ve most definitely had it up to here with metalheads going on and on about the fucking eighties and early nineties, especially the ones that were children or worse yet not even alive at the time. As I’ve previously documented, I’m too young to have been a part of the “glory days” of tape trading and fanzines or the dawn of death and black metal, so I have to take other people’s word for it that it was such a great time for metal. I was only ten years old when the eighties ended, which means I discovered this music in the mid-to-late nineties. I come from a time of cassette singles, CDs in cardboard longboxes, RIP Magazine, Riki Rachtman, and MTV playing Metallica and Megadeth videos during the day. I thought it was great at the time, and I still love many albums from that period (as well as the eighties), but I have no interest in fetishizing it. I also have no interest in this culture of regression that is currently so prominent in the metal underground, or in listening to a bunch of bands whose music serves no other purpose than to emulate a bygone era.

Of course it isn’t just new bands sounding and looking like old bands.  Various labels have been digging up and reissuing albums from seemingly every forgotten, mediocre death metal, thrash and NWOBHM band in existence in order to capitalize on the retro fever that’s sweeping the scene.  Some of these reissues, such as Uncanny’s excellent  MCMXCI – MCMXCIV compilation (released by Dark Descent in 2010) and Hell’s Human Remains (technically re-recordings of old demo tracks, rather than a full-on reissue) shed light on the discographies of bands that were unjustly buried by time and dust. The majority of them however, make it pretty apparent as to why these groups never ascended to greater heights and were subsequently brushed aside.  They also serve as a reminder that the legendary bands of their respective eras are legendary for a reason.  For whatever reason, these retro-fetishist metalheads lap this shit up, no matter how crappy the band in question might be.  In their eyes, “old = good”, end of discussion.  At this point, you could probably put out a limited edition, triple splatter vinyl box set of boombox recordings of the bowel movements of some teenage Swedish death metal band from 1991 that never made it out of the garage (do they even have garages in Sweden?) and make a fucking fortune (of course this also ties into the “Antiques Roadshow/Comic Book Guy” mentality of metal, but that’s a whole other post).

The question we need to ask ourselves is, why is this happening?  Part of it can surely be attributed to the good ol’ “music is cyclical” argument.  metal is just now getting to the stage where it is old enough to experience this, and we first saw it with the re-thrash movement that started (and quickly petered out, save a few bands) a few years back.  Now it’s death metal and traditional/NWOBHM metal’s turn.  How long these two will last is anybody’s guess, but it seems like we are already reaching our saturation point of bands shamelessly aping the sounds of yesteryear, but largely lacking the songwriting panache to get the job done.  Not only are bands like Entombed, Mercyful Fate, Killers-era Iron Maiden and early Judas Priest legendary, they are completely untouchable.  Your band will never be as great as their band.  Then again, I’m not even sure that retro copycat bands aspire to greatness.  If they aspired to something greater, they’d be blazing their own trails the way the aforementioned elder bands did, instead of riding coattails.

The other likely reason for retro metal mania is that metalheads aren’t happy with the direction so-called “modern metal” is taking.  They prefer the old classics, but the old classics are finite (you can only listen to Left Hand Path on repeat so many times), so they gravitate towards bands who sound like the old classics.  I can hardly say I blame them, being that a good portion of modern metal is nauseatingly saccharine.  Many labels have thrown their remaining weight behind bands plying a combination of subpar At The Gates-worship and boy band vocals that calls itself metalcore these days (remember when there was such a thing as good metalcore?  I do).  Death metal has become bloated, overly technical and overly produced.  Shit like deathcore, crabcore, slam death and assorted other types of bro-mosh friendly bullshit is parading around as the future of metal, being perpetrated by kids that look like some bizarre combination of wigger, circus clown and Hot Topic employee of the month and behave like they have the mental capacity of toddlers.  I still don’t know what the fuck “djent” is, and I hope I never find out (I didn’t read it, I just linked it).  Even nu metal is still alive and well on your local hard rock radio stations.  There’s a lot to be disgusted with, so it’s no wonder that fans of “real” metal are adopting a culture of regression, when everything that’s happening now is telling them that it “was better back then”.

Regardless of what “the kids” are doing, or how little we may think of metal’s latest bastard subgenres and their practitioners, regression is not the answer to the genre’s woes.  We must push forward, we must carry on.  Bands such as Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega, Thorns, DHG, Godflesh, Death, Opeth, Voivod (to name just a few) and a slew of others have successfully proven throughout the years that compelling, worthwhile progression within metal is possible.  The envelope is continually being pushed, and in some cases, ripped to shreds.  Of course, not every band can be expected to blaze their own trail, but I would respect a band that at least tried to do something original a hell of a lot more than the self-consciously retro shenanigans that are currently flooding the market.

I’m interested to hear reader opinions on this stuff.  Is metal hopelessly slipping into regression and as a result, self parody, or is this merely another flavor of the week trend that will die out in a year?  Is the “music is cyclical” argument complete bullshit?Are the Blut Aus Nord’s and Deathspell Omega’s of the world enough to keep pushing metal forward, or is some kind of paradigm shift needed?  Tell me.

30 thoughts on “Blitzkrieg #6: Metal’s Cult of Regression

  1. I guess the weird thing for me is that I now completely live in a bubble. I got completely sick of reading anything to do with the metal scene or bands, basically sick of reading metalsucks and just went on listening to other stuff.

    I tend to be more excited about bands I like than styles I like. Currently stoked about the new Vader, Sourvein and Wolves in the Throne Room. Different sounds, when I get tired of that, I’ll go listen to 90s gangsta rap.

  2. J remember how j was impresed reading Entombed interviews in end of 80s,about Nick collecting skulls,he,he.J was 14 year old,and great mistery it was.Somewhere in 1995 j meet them before the concert here in Belgrade,my childhood dream huh.Times changes,j with Satyricon shirt shake hands with my idols.Actually Lars Goran give me Pentagram usa double cd as a gift,nice memories.J ask them about b.metal mostly,and they were not into that,he,he.It was 95,big expansion of b.metal.They play mostly newer songs at that time,no classics from first two.It was ok.J actualy enjoy this new old school bands.Some will die,some will stay.Classics are still with us forever.Complex thing,j can writhe two hours about this topics,change of trends,involvment of labels in this changes,huh.hail!

  3. Maybe it is strange but for me metal is always good and well through decades,J get into metal in 84 through all this nwobhm.Hundreds of lps j collect.Many great,some not,he,he.Always there leaders and followers.J enjoy many followers,huh.Than come thrash,speed,j collect,and collect.89 j start with d.metal,94 with b.metal and till this day j still going on.Tape trading,zines,concerts,it was good and still it is j think.In my sons school there 13,14 year old kids with patches,leather,spikes.There is some kind of speed metal movement in Serbia at this moment,strange.They look like from s.metal book.Hair style is funy.Its like me 20+ years ago.There are always bands that push things,do new things and surprise us,and there are others that we can enjoy or not.Always it was like that.Anyway we can chose.Metal is so great that j can listen great thing when j want new or old,heh.There are innovative and special bands,search and you will find.Every month j have discoveries ,new bands that crushes.Hail!

  4. I fuckin love this crazy Serbian dude. But yeah, you’re dead on with this whole retro scene bunk… I’m curious, what retro inspired bands are you giving a pass? Because they just do it so well? For example: you can’t possibly be referring to Dawnbringer’s last album…could you?

  5. J was one of this no internet,no web zines and bla,bla.My son grow up and ask,dady j want internet,everybody have it,he,he.So two years ago we get internet.From year ago my eyes are like egs.J am like child.Search and download like a pig.J spit on this two years ago and now j just search.J always want everything.To hear every band,to promote,to be first play that band.J must have every record that is in store when j was kid.Thousands lps.Stole money from parents ,granmother to buy 50 lps at once from older metalheads,he,he.In 90 it was hard here sanctions,wars and shit.From 94 to 2001 have radio show and gat cds,promos .J must satisfy my hunger,he,he.J am addicted to metal he,he.This days j compensate no money situation and download little.My head will explode ,it seems that j cant swallow all this albums.Its too mutch,huh.J am not shure if some are great,good or just ok.Time will tell.It seems that j want to eat too mutch and cant stop,he,he.You know what j mean.Dawnbringer seems ok,not listen enough,just Nucleus.Everything is here at times have tendency to be little sweet in melodies but have ok parts,j am not shure still.For example j enjoy new Lantern ep,Vanhelgd,Morbus Chron seems good,when it comes to death metal.There is a bunch of others.Most will find its place for month or two.

  6. >bands plying a combination of subpar At The Gates-worship and boy band vocals

    I have about 25 CDs here sent for me to review that are exactly like this. They’re all exactly the same. What am I supposed to say about them? The only real question I have is…who is buying them?

    But yeah…you know I agree with you about all of this. And yes, a total paradigm shift is needed…but the metal “scene” is so huge/multifaceted now that such a shift can only hit one tiny part of it and the rest will go marching forward as if nothing happened. Subgenres have become genres in their own right…although we still call all of it “metal.” Maybe it really isn’t.

    Constant experimentation is always needed. What lasts = experimental, progressive music that is also heartfelt, evocative and expertly written. History and short memories make all the bands with half-formed ideas (that were still important in contemporary terms) simply disappear. All of those ideas are absorbed, however, and are reproduced in some other form halfway across the world…in somebody’s work, usually better. ;)

    Oh, and I think Mercyful Fate can never, ever be replicated.

  7. Serbian Maniac brings up a good point about how overwhelming it can be nowadays, with the huge amount of information on the internet. New stuff is spread so quickly, it’s very difficult to keep up with it all. Not like it was fifteen, twenty years ago. I think, as a consequence, it’s very tough to discover anything that is really new and different. Or to create anything truly innovative.

    In this post you (Josh) mention several “new” directions that some musicians have taken that are, to be honest, pretty awful. I have no problem with pushing the envelope and innovating, when it is done well and actually creates something new and interesting and refreshing. But if the best you can offer me is some kind of modern techno-wankery, or emo-core… well forget it, I’m perfectly happy with unoriginal OSDM or NWOTHM or whatever. They might not bring anything new to the party, but at least it’s a party I’d willingly go to!

  8. Some bands are not original,but bring fresh air with convincing playing and dedication.Simply you are moved by some albums.For example j enjoy new Villains.They have something.J have friends that listen 15 bands per genre,and that is enough for them.They say j tolerate too much,that j am not sharp anymore.Maybe,but it was always like that for me.J enjoy nianses and thats it.Dedicating last 20 years to thrash,death black j explore newer heavy,doom,progressive+old.J miss many things actually by being part of close movement.This is refreshing for me right now,to go back.Some old bands free me,to say like that.There are still unknown territories for me,and for you even at the edge of metal that are close to us.

  9. The whole retro movement hasn’t done a whole lot for me because I’d rather listen to the originals since these new bands haven’t offered anything new. Also, I’m a little turned off by how campy many of them are. I guess that’s at least somewhat of a new approach to the style, but it’s only a change in attitude and imagery.

    There seems to be an unwritten rule that, if you want to be old-school, you can only ape the debut albums of Entombed, Autopsy, or Incantation. It frustrates me that there was more experimentation going on within this style 20 years ago than there is today. Back then, we had bands like Tiamat mixing in atmospheric elements, Gorement adding depressive death/doom, and Afflicted going all technical and psychedelic with the Swedish sound. So, I don’t understand why none of these current old-school bands are expanding on those ideas or, at the very least, trying to bring them back instead of rehashing the same straightforward approach over and over again.

    Pretty much the only retro Swedeath band I currently enjoy is Revolting because they write memorable songs and melodic riffs that remind me of Edge of Sanity, which is another band that more musicians should get inspiration from.

  10. I definitely have little time for those recreating the NWOBHM sound and look like it’s some kind of metal pantomime. As you say, the originals are untouchable and the imitators don’t bring anything new to the party.

    As for OSDM revivalists, who do you mean exactly? You don’t name any bands as examples, so it’s hard to engage directly with your argument.

    For example, there’s a lot of bands emulating the Sunlight guitar tone but they are also mixing in new elements such as black metal or hardcore. I really like Acephalix as although they are indebted to Entombed, they have a strong crust punk element. All Pigs Must Die have a similar debt but fold in hardcore to brilliant effect.

    It may be heresy but, to me, the best of the new bands sound better than the originators due to modern production techniques and modern influences in the mix. It probably helps that I wasn’t into Entombed/Autopsy etc until quite recently (thanks to the revival of interest in that sound).

    I can see that for metal lifers – while I’m a little older than you I strayed from the metal path for a good 15 years plus – this “regression” could be boring.

    As another poster says, I just listen to bands I like rather than following scenes and while there’s ridiculous amounts of crap, there’s still so much gold. Maybe more than ever before.

  11. I think that Profound Lore and Southern Lord carry the Metal torch pretty well. There are a lot of good, successful bands on those labels that are still innovating. I think black metal is a good example of innovation in metal too. The bands you are mentioning are definitely innovating but I don’t really find them so captivating. I think the newer(last 5 years or so), really raw black metal is where it’s at. Bone Awl, Ash Borer, Portal(yeah kinda on the DM side as well),Nastran, and Leucosis for example. Not to say all higher produced BM sucks, but I just find the rawer the better. I still love the less-raw stuff Ruins of Beverast has done and Cobalt is way up there for my favorite black metal bands.

    Drone is another one of my favorite subgenres of metal that will never get boring to me and certainly not rehashed, or even profitable.

  12. In a sense I think that the “music is cyclical” argument is bullshit, but I also think it describes a very natural behavior that shouldn’t be denied. What people usually mean is that POPULAR music is cyclical. And the patterns that they refer to can usually be explained in terms of the mass market, which has an extremely short history on the scale of human history. I’ve definitely listened to way too much Manowar but I consider metal a gateway to, if not eternity, a longer time scale. Metal is popular music, but with its subversive/underground/outlaw tendencies, it’s also got a lot in common with folk and other less ownership-based music. Metal will be handed down through generations, and the first generation hasn’t even died off yet.

    Having a longer history invariably changes your relationship to history. Overt references to the past are natural, and I think that they can be very healthy. The metal scene is just trying to figure out how to react to the fact that “the past is alive.” Some bands are succeeding, in my opinion, and more will follow.

    I’m of the opinion that if you make music, you should do whatever you need to do to be inspired, to cause delight and to illuminate the place where we co-exist. And if that means reciting note for note and word for word what others have already done, then that’s what you have to do. A lot of metal artists that I deeply respect would say that I’m 100% wrong about that. But hey, “we do what we must (and we admire our attitude)”.

  13. I came into the fold a little later than Josh mentions above (early ’00s myself), and I find that I’m still exploring and digesting the real deal originators, and haven’t had to look to period also-rans or modern rehashes for those sounds. I haven’t worn out the classics yet. I think it’s an okay place to be in all honesty. I do feel for those who have been living and breathing those records for 15, 20+ years. If more of the “old-school” bands were made up of those people they might be more impactful — I think it’s the kids rewriting those records who sound particularly lifeless.

    Josh, you mention “bands shamelessly aping the sounds of yesteryear, but largely lacking the songwriting panache to get the job done” — I wonder how many are truly limiting themselves by the template they’re working under, and how many are just crap songwriters with nothing original to offer even if given free reign. That’s not a terrible thing; there’s a place for solid, utilitarian bands. It just means we really aren’t missing out on much by having them stick to the script, at least for now. I think most who are capable of making a true impact, will.

  14. @ Jayson – man, I’m starting to think “living in a bubble” is the way to go. Being plugged in to twitter, facebook, e-mail + constantly browsing the other metal blogs, message boards, websites, etc… it’s an avalanche of shit that will burn you right out. I’m not much of a fan of Metalsucks and a lot of the other lowest common denominator metal sites out there, but they’re good at what they do (I think?) and certainly have their following. That new Vader album rules, BTW.

    @ serbian maniac – First of all, you fucking rule dude! I would love to delve into this Serbian speed metal movement you speak of. It’s pretty cool to read a non-American opinion from someone who’s obviously been involved in metal for such a long time. I too agree with you that the amount of metal coming out these days is completely overwhelming, but there are definitely some good bands out there if you search for them. Also, you’re absolutely right that new bands can make old sounds fresh with convincing playing and dedication. Thanks for commenting!

    @ vk – I actually enjoy that last Dawnbringer album quite a bit (there’s a review of it around here somewhere)! Chris Black has been involved in metal and a variety of projects for quite a while, so I definitely don’t think he’s trying to jump on any retro bandwagon with that album. Some others I enjoy would be Ghost (just a fun band all around), Enforcer (although I question their integrity, they write ridiculously catchy songs) and Fatalist (the best band aping the Sunlight Swedeath sound, although I’m not nearly as interested since Wes Caley left) and some the Incantation-esque death metal bands (more of an aesthetic fondness for me, love that murky, doomy sound).

    @ UA – “Constant experimentation is always needed. What lasts = experimental, progressive music that is also heartfelt, evocative and expertly written.” This is it, exactly. I could not have said it better myself! And yes, Mercyful Fate can NEVER be replicated (sorry Portrait, In Solitude, etc). King Diamond is truly one of a kind, and the musicians surrounding him in Mercyful Fate were remarkable.

    @ valleyofsteel – Exactly, when the best we are being offered up in the way of something new is shit like deathcore, who can blame metalheads for embracing these bands that keep older sounds/styles alive?

    @ gordeth – complete agreement from me on all counts, very well said. Also, I’m not familiar with Afflicted… sounds like I need to rectify that!

    @ Kuz – yes, I’m mostly referring to these bands ripping off the Sunlight sound, call them Entombed-core or whatever you want. Southernlord for one is putting them out at an alarming rate… I like them a lot better when they were a doom label. I don’t mean to dis Dark Descent because I think he puts out some really cool shit, but I also think a lot of that stuff is too shamelessly retro and that some of the reissues are less than essential.

    @ Jordan Fogal – I enjoy Ash Borer and Bone Awl, but they are definitely far from innovative as far as black metal is concerned. Cobalt is fantastic and I don’t think there’s anything on Earth that sounds like Portal, I’m not familiar with Nastran and Leucosis. I like drone, but all I read for that is Earth and SunnO))).

    @ Matt A. – I do agree with you that references to the past can be healthy, but where to draw the line between “referencing” and “ripping off wholesale”? I think we are just now getting to the point where metal can begin to exhibit the same cyclical patterns we see in fashion, art, film, etc, it seems to me that most forms of human expression conform to this whether we like it or not. Also, I am all for people expressing themselves however they see fit (it isn’t like I have to listen to it), but I would prefer people create their own path or exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship and innovation within an established form rather than simply copying verbatim what has come before.

    @ mjq – I think that’s the problem, that some of these younger guys want to do music, but don’t have anything new to say, so they simply copy the bands/records that speak to them. I too am still digesting a lot of the old classics I missed out on, even now. As I said in previous post, I’m a student of metal, far from an expert.

  15. Bone Awl pulls heavy from Ildjarn but I don’t really see a lot of bands doing that. So it still seems innovative to me because they put their own spin on a style of BM that is very underplayed. Ash Borer is less so, but I still think they do the whole Weakling inspired BM better than a lot of their peers.

    Earth and Sunn O))) are great but if you ever decide to check out more, go for: Barn Owl, Gates, Locrian, Black Boned Angel and Nadja.

  16. @Jordan:

    Ash Borer doesn’t have that much in common with Weakling or WITTR if you really listen to what they’re doing. They’re much more melodic, much more expressive IMO. So also probably a lot braver? Just my opinion.

    RE: Bone Awl, I like what they do, of course, and I respect the primitive = authenticity aesthetic, it definitely has its place (sorry) when it’s heartfelt and honest, but they could have simply done a few EPs of that and the point would have been made? I hope they’re playing what they want because it’s all they can play. Otherwise it’s a simulation and that’s terrible…

    Some of these bands…it seems like people feel they have to pay attention to them/comment on them simply because they’re popular/trendy. But with more a few of them, it often feels like such popularity is a freak of nature, some kink in the machine. So if I do comment on these bands I often feel like I’ll look back on such effusions in 5/10 years and think, “WTF was I even thinking about?”

    Maybe that’s one of the major problems with metal people…both with musicians and journalists/writers, this constant awareness of historicity and the past. Influences, influences, we always talk about influences…

  17. Let’s face it, metal is over 40 years old. All avenues of exploration within its various confines have been tried. Once a genre stagnates and turns backward, it’s pretty much finished. A few innovators will remain but in a hyper-niched, micro-fragmented scene, they will struggle to find ears. People often take comfort in easy music, though those of us who seek alternatives will often find them. That said, I can understand the tug of nostalgia both for scene veterans and new kids who missed out on an era that will never be replicated. I came up through metal in the late 80’s and there was nothing quite like hearing Metallica’s AJFA the day it dropped and thinking you’d heard the heaviest shit ever until your friend turns you onto Napalm Death and Entombed and their music is just so heavy and scary and new that you are almost afraid to listen to it. No kid now will ever experience anything like that. I think its wrong to fetishize the era, as much of crap was released back then as now but the titans of that era still stand tall while most metal now fails to inspire. I do wish people would stop ripping off Entombed though or claiming that all Entombed records after Clandestine suck.

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  20. *I don’t mean to dis Dark Descent because I think he puts out some really cool shit, but I also think a lot of that stuff is too shamelessly retro and that some of the reissues are less than essential*

    I would agree with you on way TOO MUCH osdm style bands that Matt releases (Corpsesed do rule though), but saying the reissues of Death Strike, Toxemia, Utomno and the upcoming frigging Depravity and Timeghoul are less than essential??!!, No way man, may not be in your top 10 or top 20 90s classic dm releases, but those are gems

  21. I consider myself getting into metal quite late and it was Left Hand Path by Entombed that made me realise that metal can be raw, powerful and no bad guitar solos with a chorus pedals on them. From then, I went on to a lot of black metal and discovered bands like Bathory, Beherit and Hellhammer which inspired me enough to play metal. I even bought the Boss HM-2, THE Entombed pedal.

    The focussed power of extreme metal was just what I was craving for after a period of unstructured noisy experimental music.

    The turning points which lead to my appreciation and penchant for metal were great moments and it is hard to relive them. I do wonder sometimes if they’ll ever occur again. Having said so, I do like me some of the new old school death metal bands.

  22. Man, I don’t check this blog often enough. I’m way late to this discussion.

    Anyway, I’ve talked about retro metal a number of times, and it started with me ripping on it for copying the hair metal that I’ve always hated. Sometimes, I don’t see the point in listening to it because it’s a wholesale ripoff (e.g. Orchid), but other times I appreciate a band making new music in a style I like (e.g. Portrait). I don’t know, but now I’m not sure it’s so easy to just dismiss all retro metal offhand. I mean, how could you not like Ghost? So long as they’re writing new songs, then I guess it’s not so important that they be completely original.

    On the other hand, I do appreciate people taking metal in a new direction even more. I’d rather have Portal than Disma–but I like them both.

  23. “Remember when there was such a thing as good metalcore? I do.” — Golly, can’t wait for that revival. I’ve got boxes of shirts enough to outfit a neo-courage crew’s worth of privileged and repressed ‘SxE till I die’ kids with the ‘vintage’ goods.

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  28. Bands such as Deathspell Omega, Opeth, and Death will be enough. Metal has just slid onto a much more mainstream audience as I see it. As a result of this (and anything else that goes mainstream) a lot of unoriginal shit is GOING to emerge. We just have to deal with it.

    Simply put, that’s generally the way I see it. I don’t have doubts of metal’s future. There will always be young bloods that set out to shine harder than the rest of them.

  29. Aw, this was a really good post. Taking the time and actual effort
    to create a very good article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and
    don’t manage to get nearly anything done.

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