Sunday, August 08, 2010

True Metal vs. False Metal

A Critical Examination of Metalheads' Obsession with the Trve and the Kvlt, the Irrational Hatred for Anything Deemed False Metal--and Why We Should Stop the Crusade


Perhaps more than any other genre, the fans of metal are obsessed with authenticity. What is "true metal" (or "trve metal")? What is "false metal"?

Kings of Metal People make Youtube videos to explain their own opinions on what is true and what isn't, they go on discussion boards to shout their opinions all the time, and they make silly online quizzes to declare those who share their opinions as true and others posers. Even the musicians aren't immune, with Manowar leading their ongoing (and ridiculous) fictional war against false metal and Darkthrone warning the false to circle their wagons. As if they're going to come out and attack them.

Metal invites enthusiasm, and metalheads show it (nobody wears Lady Gaga or Dr. Dre t-shirts). That's why metal fans are the most bloodthirsty fans around, both in promoting what they like and in hating what they don't.

Defining the Issue

So, what is true metal? An Urban Dictionary entry defines true metal as
Metal that stays true to the original tenets of the genre. Metal that is about integrity and not getting your music video on MTV or Fuse. Metal that is about staying true to yourself and not following whatever is popular at the moment.
The definition, starts well, but goes on to incorporate too much opinion and degenerates into sentence fragments:
Metal that the makers have put effort and time into, not little effort righteous preaching and teen angst. Metal that you mosh to, not fight invisible ninjas to. Metal that stands the test of time because true metal will never die. Poser slaying louder than hell hard as diamonds Metal.
SlipknotIt's almost impossible to find a decent discussion on the subject anywhere. Most of them are based purely on personal opinion, and they seem to center around declaring Slipknot to be false.

It is tough to define. There are a few obvious examples of false metal: Vampires Everywhere! for instance. But outside of such glaring commercialization, the discussion is a shouting match based on criteria no more useful than what the speaker likes or doesn't like. In truth, there's a spectrum of trve vs. false, with Vampires Everywhere! on one end and bands like Unleashed on the other, with bands like Machine Head, Twisted Sister, and Avenged Sevenfold falling somewhere in between.

One Urban Dictionary contributor got it right when (s)he defined false metal:
Metal that does not come from the heart. Metal in which the artists show no passion. Metal which is made for the sole purpose of being marketed and whored out to every mindless dimwit out there who believes that listening to a popular band will make them "hardcore."

Unlike what many of the other people here have said, false metal is NOT simply any band that you don't like. If I didn't like Iron Maiden (and just for the record I DO like them), does that give me the right to say they are false metal? No! And you know why? Because their music DOES come from the heart, and the performers DO have a strong passion for it.

It's the same with many other bands out there. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it is false metal, even though it's true that many bands out there whose music DOES suck do play false metal.
Some of the confusion about true and false metal comes about because fans confuse trve with kvlt or underground. (Essentially, kvlt means metal that's deep underground, selling less than 500 copies or so.) But commercial success is not a legitimate measure of how true the music is--as I noted in Defining Metal, it's not about the actual success, but about whether the band seeks widespread commercial appeal. If you think it has to be kvlt to be trve, then you're not any better than all those hipsters out there. Deicide's self-titled album has sold over 100,000 copies in the US. Are they false?

I should make one thing clear before going further. There are really two different kinds of false metal. The first is almost as old as the genre itself: commercialized metal. That needs no further explanation. The second is a much more recent phenomenon, the idea of "hipster" metal. Some people claim that hipsters don't exist, but those people never walked through the trendy downtown areas, populated by people who are intentionally dress bad, who don't really like anything, but like things ironically. They will pretend to like whatever they think will make them ironically "cool". And since fans of metal are naturally rabid, anyone who pretends to like it for the moment--but not to really like it--is the worst kind of false.

True or False: So what?

The reason for this confusion and backlash is because metal is by its nature an outsider genre with dedicated fans, and when those things are compromised the core fans feel threatened. This is why Slipknot has drawn so much hatred; they are the most extreme band to get widespread commercial success, and some metalheads are afraid a bunch of false fans are going to start claiming to like the kvlt bands. But there's no reason to be threatened. Necrophagist is not about to go platinum, and teeny-boppers are not going to start wearing Marduk tees.

Yes, Miley Cyrus wore Iron Maiden shirts and so did Drew Barrymore, but they did it to seem cool as hipsters. If tweens started to copy them, they wouldn't do it anymore. "Artists" of all varieties, especially musicians, get more credibility if they seem to have eclectic tastes. Maybe they like a couple songs (Who wouldn't like "Flight of Icarus"?) but they're not fans. It's all for show, and they were wearing well-known bands, so there's no cause for outrage.

In fact, I think mainstream metal, be it true (like Slayer) or false, serves an important purpose. It's a gateway. Nobody got into metal because they listened to Bathory. They found out about the mainstream stuff first. A lot of people bought Metallica, for a lot of reasons. For some people, the metalness of it was a curiosity. Some just liked that album or band, and that's fine. Others started listening to other mainstream metal bands, but continued to like other music, and they like it despite its metalness but continue to do it because they think it's cool. These are the posers, but I think they're a much, much smaller group than some would have you believe. Still others started listening to other metal bands, stuck with it, and essentially stopped listening to anything that wasn't metal--not to maintain an image, but because non-metal just didn't interest them anymore. Those are the metalheads. Metallica leads to Slayer, and Slipknot, and that's where they jump over to At the Gates and Satyricon.

80's Glam RockEach generation has a different version of mainstream metal that they get into. Personally, I can't stand hair metal, but I can't fault anyone for listening to it, especially if they're a few years older than me. I got into metal in no small part because of nu metal, and all the older metal fans--who probably listened to hair metal ten years earlier--ripped on me for doing it. And that's why I'm not going to criticize the teenagers and college kids of today for listening to Avenged Sevenfold and all the other mainstream metalcore bands. It's not my thing, but a small handful of them will be Trve Metalheads some day. And in ten years, it will be something different. There's no reason to abandon the less true metal after you discover the truest, though. Even if it's not as true as it can be, it's still metal.

Only The Dead See The End Of The War (EP) Likewise, the hipster metal serves an important purpose. As one observer noted:
A hipster’s relationship to pop culture is suspect. It’s assumed to be ironic, exaggerated, or lacking in validity. None of these attributes could possibly be applied to Acrassicauda. Yet this scarlet letter can’t be pinned upon a band like Cave In either. While the Boston group’s relationship with metal lacks the commitment of a band like Acrassicauda, their curiosity and appetite for alternate music forms doesn’t diminish the validity of their craft. Quite the opposite: it makes their music more interesting because it brings new ideas into a music form that’s 40 years old. Acrassicauda does a fine job at paying homage to their heroes and adding fire to a traditional metal style, but their homage does little to propel the actual art of metal forward into unexpected territories.
In other words, the "hipster" metal acts are evolving the sound of the music, keeping it from becoming stagnant like today's death metal scene. No one gets up in arms when Zakk Wylde professes his love for the music of Elton John, or when so-and-so cites the Beatles or something else as an influence. Hipster metal bands are simply bleeding the genres together from the other direction, and they can make some excellent stuff. If someone who's true takes a cue from that, they will no doubt do a better job, but the point is that it evolves this way.

How Should the True Treat the False?

So, what should metalheads do about false metal? You can do one of two things. First, ignore it, if you can't respect it for what it is. Otherwise, stop ripping on it. If someone brings it up in conversation, just tell them you don't like it, and tell them about the underground bands they've probably never heard of. Maybe, you will contribute to the evolution of a trve metalhead, and on top of that you get a chance to show how knowledgeable you are about metal (we all love to do that).

To close, I'll quote a poster in a discussion on a video that's no longer available:
This is a tough one for me because I'm kinda caught on two sides.

On the one hand, I definitely agree that so much new music (mostly emo) tries to associate itself with metal and that the metal community (who, for the most part, can pick out the real metal from the bad stuff) should support "true" metal (whether new or old) and specifically not support new "false" metal.

A great example occurred when Hipo, Bouboule, Pete, and I were at the Dragonforce show in Montreal a few years back. A few decent bands opened for Dragonforce and we supported them fully. Then, Protest the Hero played and we backed off into a corner to specifically not support them. Not because they're a horrible band or that the music is necessarily bad (although I personally think it is) but because it's not metal and we wanted to show the show organizers that we felt it wasn't acceptable. It turns out that the rest of the crowd agreed and they ended up getting a less-than-welcoming reception...

On the other hand, however, I do have a serious issue with the arrogance of a guy like this (who made the video) just arbitrarily setting out what is and is not metal. And I think that arrogance extends across the metal community as well. It's one thing to love and support a specific kind of music but it's quite another to wish "death to all that is not metal".

Again, tough call but I do think it raises a debate that is crucial to the future of the metal community.


  1. I've been trying to come up with something to say to this for a couple of days, but I think this is a really good post and I really don't have anything to add.

    I like to make fun of "false metal" occasionally, but there's nothing really malicious about it.

  2. Thanks!

    Maybe I shouldn't try so hard next time, so there's room for discussion.

  3. I agree with you, on the whole. Most of the anti-'false metal' crowd seem more like they're just slapping a label on the metal they don't like. Maybe they're afraid that if they don't like a conventionally popular band because it's popular then they'll look like they don't "know", so by proclaiming them not to be metal, it make it safe to dislike it? Or they want to be all edgy and anti-subculturally-mainstream, whatever that happens to be? Perhaps, as one Urban Dictionary writer put it, because they just want to exclude their dislikes from the genre as the ultimate expression of their mispleasure?

    I like Slipknot - I think that they use some very clever ploys, the most obvious example being their masks, to make themselves memorable and instantly recognisable to the general public. There's no mistaking them, even to a mainstreamer.
    And there's nothing wrong about that. The metal bands in the mainstream are, as you say, the gateways for the new fans.

    I'll tread carefully when talking about the mainstream as I know that there are some quite ferocious anti-establishmenters out there whom I don't wish to offend, but really - someone who leaves the mainstream in favour of a subculture because they didn't wish to partake of that culture, or because they felt excluded there, only to exclude someone else seeking sanctuary (as it were) along with them because of their tastes within the genre is fairly pathetic in my opinion.

    Yes, okay, the loud and obnoxious thirteen-year-old Hot Topic wearers who are convinced that Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park are the metal-est thing since sliced steel bread are hard to get along with. Similarly, most people hate Japanfans who warble endlessly about the joys of Dir En Grey in mangled Wapanese, proclaiming them better than ever the greats were for the sole reason of being Japanese.

    On the other hand, the great chances are that they won't stay that way for long; they'll either grow out of the phase and move back to the mainstream, or by their association with those bands will find better music, realise that they were ridiculous before and stop being so annoying. The great majority don't remain that way for long.
    (And if they still like those bands, whether non-metal, 'bad' metal, or, well, just Japanese by the time they're distinctly not thirteen any more and have found their way into 'true metal'? I love the Pet Shop Boys. So sue me. C:)

    1. "the great chances are that they won't stay that way for long; they'll either grow out of the phase and move back to the mainstream, or by their association with those bands will find better music"

      And, when their fan-base grows mature and full of cash when in 'phase 1 of empty nest', they'll probably enjoy a "revival / comeback" like the old hair-metal bands are undergoing these days...?

  4. Thanks for the great comment! I can't disagree with any part of it (except liking the Pet Shop Boys, of course, but I can't fault you too much for that).

  5. I think the best point you make (and something which is all too often ignored) is the gateway factor. I've made that same basic argument myself, though most "true" metalheads tend to ignore it.

    For me personally it was Mushroomhead, which lead to Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage, which led to In Flames and then the doors to melodeath opened and my metal journey was fully underway.

    Until you're in the door, you've never even heard of most metal bands, let alone developed a taste for them. As you said, Bathory are awesome, but it's not like somebody is going to be browsing the cds in Wal-Mart looking for something new to listen to and come home with Under the Sign of the Black Mark.

  6. The new issue of Terrorizer (#202, with Kylesa on the cover) has a great letter on that very issue. The guy who wrote in said he listened to Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, and eventually got into Slayer. When Slayer were on the cover of Terrorizer, he finally recognized a band from the magazine, got it, and it opened up a whole new world to him.

    Honestly, I still like Mushroomhead. I was thinking about doing a post on nu metal bands I still think are good (the list is pretty short).

  7. "Others started listening to other mainstream metal bands, but continued to like other music, and they like it despite its metalness but continue to do it because they think it's cool. These are the posers, but I think they're a much, much smaller group than some would have you believe. Still others started listening to other metal bands, stuck with it, and essentially stopped listening to anything that wasn't metal--not to maintain an image, but because non-metal just didn't interest them anymore. Those are the metalheads."

    Very well said, Sir. I've got a brother-in-law who's into Metallica AND... Linkin Park, so we do have a common point. He's still equating yelling+guitars=metal, so I try to stay the furthest away from LP at all cost.