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Be afraid, be very afraid. Heavy metal - the sound and look - is escaping our rural backwaters and becoming super-hip. Rachel Newsome runs for cover
Metal is as perennial to pop culture as mammaries are to the Sun, fleas to dogs and Richard & Judy to daytime TV. Until now, however, it has lurked on the margins - make that the crypts of culture - clinging naffly to melodramatic gothic imagery. For years, it has been trailer- park cringeworthy. These days, though, metal is hot.

Cool bands, apparently, frequently call upon the songwriting skills of Black Sabbath. Deep Purple looked in on the team at The Big Breakfast last week. Which is all very well, but who really wants to identify with Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson, the utterly repulsive protagonist of Irvine Welch's latest novel, Filth? A sexist, homophobic, racist pig with a predilection for thrash, he is the apotheosis of the cock-rocking, expletive- spewing, invariably white male, known as The Metal Fan.

So who's actually into any of that stuff these days? Well, you can try the 60,000 headbangers who trooped to the rock mecca that is Milton Keynes to savour Black Sabbath at Ozzy Osborne's Oz Fest this year. Whereas the Phoenix sold so few tickets that it was forced to cancel, Oz Fest was one of the few festivals to sell out. Or how about the 150,000 and counting who have bought the delightfully self-proclaimed Cradle Of Filth's Cruelty and the Beast album? That's three times more than Catatonia's International Velvet.

And that's not mentioning the rise in sales of UK metal and rock mags, Metal Hammer and Kerrang!, while all around them circulation figures for music and style magazines are unceremoniously wilting. Indeed, the timing could not have been more finely tuned for Kiss or Black Sabbath, who both release albums before Christmas. Be afraid, be very afraid; the style outlaws with the sartorial taste of Morticia Addams on a bad hair day and the ability to make an exploding pneumatic drill sound like a classical aria, are back.

It's not just metal (pronunciation: me'uhl) but the primal screams of its equally noisy, adrenalin-pumping, torso-thrashing, body (and ear) piercing co-conspirators, punk, thrash, grunge, speed, glam and good old- fashioned rock, to which a new generation of bored suburban kids are looking to get their rocks off. "Oz Fest was successful because it was targeted at fans of aggressive music," reckons editor of Kerrang! editor Phil Alexander. "It's not an age thing, it's about a state of mind. Black Sabbath were headlining the bill and you can shrug them off, but they've influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols to Nirvana to The Prodigy."

As for the recent preponderance of metal itself, this resurgence doesn't stop at the gargantuan built-to- tour rock dinosaurs of yore. No, there's a whole slew of both US and UK new metal acts vying to take on the maverick mantle of their old heroes, among them Soul Fly, Backyard Babies, Cycle Fly, Pitchshifter, Korn and System Of A Down. Not forgetting our Northern friends, Cradle Of Filth, who feature in a BBC2 Living With The Enemy documentary this week, when a fan's concerned parent prepares to meet her son's vampyric idols.

"There are a lot of new stars," points out Robin Doreian, editor of Metal Hammer. "I think it's the only exciting music around - it makes everything else seem really bland. People have a bad image of us but it doesn't match up to what we do."

Yes, the main appeal of metal is that it's really hardcore - you could call it the New Hardcore. And, no, we're not talking Pulp's latest album. In fact, the art school introspection of Jarvis is the absolute anathema of the New Hardcore. With a core fan base thriving in the rural towns of Cumbria and North Scotland, metal has never pretended to be a soundtrack for the urban sophisticate or the politically correct.

"There's a snobbery against the testosterone, exuberance and extravagance of metal and rock," explains Steven Wells, NME's resident ranter. "It's instinctively felt to be repulsive by an audience who likes sensitive bands like Pulp and Blur." But as late Nineties pop culture goes into a sampling, multi-referencing, reinventing, genre-bending overdrive of Derridean postmodern proportions, it was only a matter of time before the unlimited kitsch potential of metal et al was dragged out of its cultural encryption to be repackaged at a more palatable level. And so it is that the ultimate antithesis of all things stylish seems, unaccountably, to have become almost fashionable. Or at least hip in an arcane, kitsch way.

"Ultimately, metal is pubescent," believes Fraser Moss of fashion label YMC, who also makes his own line of metal-inspired T-shirts, Geek. "You can't build a fashion scene on white spotty kids, so on the style side. It's a totally kitsch thing."

Endorsed by everyone from Alexander McQueen's artistic director, Katy England (she arguably kick-started the whole thing by appearing in Elle in a Motorhead T), to the Pepsi Max skate-punk speed freaks of London, the Hammer House of Horror symbolism of hardcore is now being deployed as a style signifier a world apart from its origins among the Anthrax fans of Cumbria.

This relegitimisation of metal goes some way to explaining the unexpected appearance of trad metallers in the Top Ten and rave reviews for Anthrax's new album in the mainstream music press. Not to mention the sight of that cheeky ingenue of credible pop, Robbie Williams, bursting into his Let Me Entertain You video in full Kiss regalia, complete with skintight catsuit, Coco the Clown make-up and befittingly evil leer. A pastiche of a pastiche (after all, when did any of these acts affect to be anything other than tongue-in-cheek?), it is not so much the music that appeals but the accompanying imagery.

And where but in the shape of that satanic androgyne, Marilyn Manson, is the ritualistic power of this imagery more apparent? With thousands of devoted followers worldwide, Manson is more cult religion than cutting- edge artist, with the atavistic thrash of his band's music becoming incidental by comparison. Then, who else is Brian Molko but a watered-down European Marilyn Manson, plus a helping of British irony? Or more obviously, T- Rex's Mark Bolan, as exemplified in the neatly timed release of Todd Haynes' glam tribute, Velvet Goldmine?

Elsewhere, dance gurus The Prodigy appeared on the cover of their last album sporting T-shirts advertising rock band The Veruccas. Not that they need to: the Essex band's firebrand techno roars with enough testosterone to qualify as metal anyway - but for the fact they use samplers instead of guitars. Ditto The Chemical Brothers. In fact, it's metal's increasing tendency towards elements of hiphop and techno that has helped rejuvenate the genre notorious for its formulaic trad rock posturings a la Def Leppard.

But what is there underneath the macho groin-thrusting, phallus-esque guitar-waving than a camp pantomime? While Kiss and Manson may produce a level of decibels usually reserved for heavy industrial machinery, they pout and preen and display more make- up than an entire Clarins counter at Kendalls. After all, Freddie Mercury didn't call his four-piece rock act Queen for nothing.

The thing is that, while Queen were the ultimate monsters of pop, they were never cool. Because, beyond the macho posturing, metal and its derivatives are a freak show - a Widow Twanky but with pierced tongues and studded belts. Ultimately, you know the whole campfest isn't real and that, behind every blood-curdling faux drag queen, is a nice lad who enjoys a good cuppa and loves his mother.

Which brings us back to Cradle Of Filth, who admit to as much in the BBC documentary. The new cool? As long as metal involves drinking copious amounts of lager, zero dress sense, an unlimited ability to irritate parents and bands who pruriently call themselves Wank, Fuck and Snot, it's longevity is assured as much as its lack of style and panache. Safe rebellion for post-Stonewall kids (and for that matter, "kids" who never grow up).

Remember that for every Radiohead, there'll always be a Cradle Of Filth.