The axe men cometh

Metal is mutating. Metallica are going where no plank-spanker has been before. Ian Blackaby surveys the road to Riffsville
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The Independent Culture
Next Tuesday sees the American release of an album that will send the US retail trade into a paroxysm of till-ringing ecstasy. The album is by a band whose four previous albums have clocked up a combined 1,000 weeks on the US charts. When that same band held a pre-release "playback" of their eponymous 1991 album for fans in New York, they held it in Madison Square Garden. They've won three Grammies, sold 50 million records and their last album entered the charts at Number One on both sides of the Atlantic. If it is possible to have such a thing as a contemporary equivalent of Led Zeppelin - the all-pervading heavy rock phenomenon of the Seventies - then this is it. The group is Metallica and they play something that once upon a time - before Grunge, Seattle and the cultural rehabilitation of the monster guitar riff - we used to call heavy metal.

Heavy metal has for years been the stuff of popular satire - for that it can thank Wayne's World, Spinal Tap, the Comic Strip, and traditional urban hipster contempt for all things you can deem provincial. Yet even within its own industry, metal is a pariah, sniffed at by record company staff at all levels of the corporate structure. Indeed, major record labels often leave it to independent companies, such as Music For Nations and Roadrunner, to do the majors' development work for them. Meanwhile, the music media harbours an image of metal that consists, by and large, of Adrian Edmondson in a wig. For both observers and insiders, metal is the lottery winner of rock, envied for its wealth and business muscle, derided for its gauche extravagance.

This is in itself ironic for an industry both obsessed with the statistics of success and rarely embarrassed by its own venality. But music industry insiders can blush all they like. AC/DC, Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Metallica - these are the names that consistently pack stadia worldwide, that shift units in platinum-rated quantities, that have lung-bursting career stamina and have more devilishly good tunes than you can shake a Flying V at. Moreover, beyond this premier league, there is a growing legion of bands blurring traditional distinctions, taking much of their influence from the pre-punk Seventies but who, to a large extent,are what Americans mean when they use the term 'Alternative'. Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Therapy?, Nine Inch Nails, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers - they all make platinum records and moonlight as heralds of the Nineties' western zeitgeist. Then, on the other side of the hard-rock equation, there's Sepultura and Pantera, who chart at a level that suggests some kind of renaissance is underway in metal's creative hard core.

So what has happened to heavy metal? And what is it about the changes in the musical landscape since 1991 that mean you need no longer be ashamed to find yourself knee-deep in dry ice with one foot planted squarely on your downstage monitor?

In seeking a watershed moment, look no further than the opening chords of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". For a band that embraced the punk ethos and came to deride the growing element of metal fans in their audiences, the overdriven, fuzzy, mid-tempo chords that lent muscle to "Teen Spirit" 's mewl came on like a slacker's "Smoke on the Water". Yet the bridging of the divide between metal and indie began before the dawning of the Seattle scene.

The core of Eighties independent metal acts, from which Metallica sprang, had developed a genre of speed anthem that owed more to the likes of Black Flag and the West Coast punk scene than to Iron Maiden. If you listen to the production work of Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana, PJ Harvey), The Chemical Brothers or to The Prodigy's odd bursts of metallic frenzy, the influence of that now-moribund "thrash" scene is obvious. Elsewhere - and conversely - ultra-alternative, slacker groups such as Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden were pulling off the rare trick of evoking much of Led Zeppelin's magisterial might without blatantly copying the stop- start riffing that was their trademark. Good old AC/DC may still threaten to "strap you to the bed and make you rock" but, by and large, the sex, satan and Tolkien school of songwriting has evolved into something that shares common swamp with the tortured minds of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) or Nirvana's Kurt Cobain himself.

This is a world of self-conscious interior turmoil, in which parent- and authority-baiting, eco-paranoia, serial killing and Gothic fantasy compete with the generalised adolescent misery that has always been the heart of indie pathology.

Yet if there is a commonly voiced disappointment in the industry, then it is the lack of new British talent of true international class. Roadrunner's Mark Palmer, home of Sepultura and Machine Head, is blunt. "The British metal press tends to be very supportive of its own acts," he says, "but most of those acts are simply not professional enough, and domestic sales of even 60,000 albums rarely translate into overseas success." East West rock A&R man and former Kerrang editor Dante Bonutto points less to a lack of quality than the dominating influence of American hard rock since the early-Eighties. "For the health of the music it is important to find bands to take the genre forward: acts that are perceived as cutting edge, have the aura to attract fanatical audiences and invest in roadwork. Quite simply, being a good band is more important than representing a specific genre."

Marketing man Dave Thorne (former clients: Metallica, Bon Jovi) was instrumental, when looking at new approaches to artist development, in introducing the direct mail and club promotion techniques common to indie and dance music. Thorne agrees that there is a lack of professionalism in British bands but sees equal fault elsewhere. "One of the failings of major labels has been that they are not in touch with the grass roots audience," he says. "Everything is motivated by the media and, historically, the A&R community is media driven."

In that case, this year's Donington should prove to be an acid test for the wave of musical liberalism currently washing over the hard rock world. Donington's main attractions, Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne, are resolutely old school. But with Metallica, AC/DC and company detained on business elsewhere, this festival may be remembered more for the heroic welcome accorded to Brazil's Sepultura than for the breaking of any box-office records. Indeed, Donington left its announcement so late that it was rumoured that organisers would pass for the current year. That an event of this size should be in question attests to the dwindling number of established mainstream metal bands capable of pulling the requisite crowds. Equally, and perhaps more significantly, it's a measure of the fact that many potential Donington attractions, such as Therapy? and Soundgarden, are now equally coveted by those festival bastions of indie and alternative rock, Reading and Phoenix.

Much of the pre-release hype surrounding Metallica's Load has focused on the issue of demographics and shifting audience patterns. For the first time, the group's US record company is confident of a breakthrough on alternative radio - the traditional launching pad for the likes of Alanis Morissette and Bush, not plank-spanking metal acts. This in turn will irritate the traditional rock stations who have always seen Metallica as their exclusive preserve and fear a further shunt down the radio format pecking-order as a consequence.

The touring industry has been equally surprised by the band's decision to accept an invitation to headline Lollapalooza, America's annual multi- artist touring circus - a kind of Reading on wheels, which has traditionally been a forum for indie rock and the odd token rap act. What will surprise many people is that Metallica's first choice of support acts were Black Grape and Oasis. Perhaps even moreshocking to adepts is the group's new look. The trademark Metallica non-image, compromising black jeans, black T-shirt and baseball boots, has been shelved in favour of the Latino lounge- reptile iconography favoured by those who appear in Tarantino films. Short hair and suits would have spelled commercial suicide for a metal band in the 1980s. These days it looks less like an act of cynicism than a simple reflection of the cultural status quo.

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