In a recent interview with Metal Hammer, Bullet For My Valentine frontman Matt Tuck claimed that metal has “gone a bit stale”. This headline-grabbing statement was, naturally, met with a chorus of denials across social media when it was presented as a news piece online, and Holy Roar Record’s Alex Fitzpatrick has since written a rebuttal in the form of an open letter (also published in Metal Hammer). But what if there’s some merit to what Tuck claims?
First, Tuck’s statement should be taken in context. He’s the frontman of a commercially ambitious band, with aspirations to headline stadium tours. The latest BFMV record, Gravity, has shown a definite shift away from metal, with Muse and Linkin Park being cited as key inspirations and many comparing it to the likes of Asking Alexandria. It’s hard not to feel that his statements play into this shift – an attempt to present his band as moving away from a supposedly tired style, rather than the cynical play for mainstream stardom their change in sound most likely is.
Furthermore, as a band that are – in the grand scheme of things – pretty big, it’s inevitable that BFMV will have been in a bubble with regards to the kind of bands they are exposed to. So, when Tuck says “metal has gone stale”, it should be read as “mainstream metal has gone stale”. And, though Gravity is just as guilty of this as any other album, it’s hard to argue with such a statement. Rock and metal festivals are regularly headlined by the same bands, with well-established sounds, almost all of whom have been bothering the mainstream for years by now. There are some relatively newer bands – such as Babymetal and Ghost – making mainstream inroads, but even here, they are tapping into familiar sounds. Even classic bands are arguably surviving thanks to past glories rather than recent successes; nostalgia is undoubtedly a huge part of Iron Maiden‘s appeal (and they’re aware enough of this to spend some tours playing exclusively from “classic” albums); Metallica and Slayer haven’t released truly great albums in almost thirty years; and that Firepower is the best Judas Priest album in a long time says more about the patchy nature of their post-Painkiller discography than it does any particular merits of Firepower.
Even in the underground, more extreme scenes, there is a considerable hunger for nostalgia and bands living on past glories, as evidenced by Emperor regularly playing festival headline slots where they play an old album in full; the inherently regressive nature of the thrash revival; or the way that Mayhem only ever seem to play De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas at their live shows, despite their sound on studio records having moved on considerably since then (and most of the current line-up having no connection to said album).
With this said though, the idea that metal as a whole is stale – or tired, or lacking in inspiration and innovation – is blatantly false. Whilst there are hordes of derivative bands out there, there are also plenty of notable bands who are pushing metal into new, exciting shapes and directions, or making old sounds come across as fresh and exciting again. 夢遊病者 (Sleepwalker) are one such band, with the multi-national group’s take on psychedelic, jazz-inspired black metal being utterly genre-defying. Elsewhere, Gaerea have combined the best of discordant aspects of black metal with the kind of melancholic edge normally associated with the Polish scene to devastating, hugely impressive effect. The anti-fascist, anarchist black metal of Dawn Ray’d is some of the most inspiring, passionate music to be released in years. Sigh have been making brain-melting metal ever since their inception – music that treats genre as something to be ignored.
And that’s to say nothing of the rise of the modern death metal scene, which is arguably the most fertile, exciting scene in metal right now, with the likes of Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice, and Tomb Mold releasing albums that could justifiably be described as classics. And then there’s Imperial Triumphant, who have released one of the most mind-bendingly creative and impressive albums of recent years, regardless of genre; or the growing tide of feminist death metal, led by Castrator and Venom Prison, which is bringing a new perspective and energy to the genre. Examples are, frankly, too plentiful for my word count to allow me to list them all.
Not that bands have to be innovating to avoid being stale, either. As the aforementioned thrash revival of several years ago demonstrated, you don’t have to do anything new with a genre for your records to come across as exciting or fresh. No one would reasonably argue that Vein are taking hardcore or nu-metal in new, innovative directions, yet the response to Errorzone and the energy it conjures demonstrate that you can release an excellent, energetic album without it doing anything too new. Similarly, Le Dernier Crépuscule by Cthe’ilist did nothing that Demilich hadn’t done before, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the highlights of death metal in the past ten years.
Expecting someone in Matt Tuck’s position to be aware of such records, bands, or scenes is unrealistic though. When you’re seemingly dissatisfied at headlining 5,000 capacity venues, and talking about your new album in the context of “taking us where we want to be” commercially rather than in terms of artistic merit or expression, it’s clear that you’re not dealing with someone who cares about the underground, or shares its values. Perhaps Tuck has simply fallen out of love with metal – which is fair enough; people grow and their tastes change. But it’s hard not to read his statements as those of a businessman with a product to sell rather than as an artist who believes in his vision. Anyone who thinks metal is stale just isn’t looking hard enough for the good stuff.
Words: Stuart Wain