There has been a development that has taken almost 2 decades to fully take hold within the beating heart of our beloved divine spirit of heavy metal. That evolution of which I speak is a term that is met with disdain and hatred in the metal underworld, yet one that is met with enthusiasm and reverence in the emo, mallcore, and popular heavy music community. This is an idea and an influence that, when one climbs higher to the well-lit surface of metal, becomes more prevelant and widely accepted. I am, of course, referring to that which is known as “core”.
The very word core can induce cringing and eye rolling in die-hard metalheads. It has become synonymous with words like talentless, generic, and overrated. For those who frequent Hot Topic and large popular (primarily American) metal festivals, it is their bread and butter and the only metal they are interested in listening to. How do I know all of this? Because I was a part of this scene.
The term comes from a genre known as “hardcore punk”, or just hardcore for short. Bands such as Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Misfits, and The Exploited played hardcore at its genesis. I will admit, although I am familiar with some early hardcore, my expertise is metal and therefore I am not as well versed in punk subgenres, but I am trying my best here. Hardcore, which was a heavier extension of punk (think the speed of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, mixed with the heavy atmosphere and attention to song structure of bands like Black Sabbath and Motorhead) then evolved into crossover thrash, which was a scene where hardcore would mix with thrash to create bands like Agnostic Front and Murphy’s law. While adhering to the blue collar “regular guy” aesthetic of hardcore, these bands would play alongside thrash giants such as Metallica and Slayer. All of this happened between the mid-80’s and mid-90’s.
Where things begin to complicate a bit is in the mid to late 90’s when hardcore became more metal inflenced, developing into a pseudo-grindcore, thrash, hardcore mess, giving birth to Converge, Earth Crisis, and Overcast,which were some of the first true metalcore bands. They also began utilizing a technique in their songs known as “breakdowns”. Breakdowns are something that were prevelent in early hardcore and later on in metallic hardcore. This is largely the reason why we still have them today. Breakdowns consist of a sudden tempo drop in speed as well as being complimented by intensified drumming, giving an emphasis of heaviness.
At the same time, groove metal was becoming a genre, featuring such bands as Machine Head, Fear Factory (who is typically more lumped in with industrial metal bands such as Ministry), Sepultura and of course Pantera. This was all primarily happening in America, with few exceptions, and contemporarilly paralleling these developments– melodic death metal’s foundations were being laid in Sweden, in the Gothenburg scene. Melodic death metal is a genre that takes the heaviness and guttural screaming of swedish bands like Entombed and Dismember and mixes it with the twin guitar melodies of Iron Maiden and eventually begins encorporating clean singing. Notable bands include At The Gates, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames.
If you need to reread the above paragraphs to get all of your genres, bands, subgenres and time periods together, please do so now, because we’re about to dig deeper, bringing things full circle.
Fast forwarding to the early 2000’s, California, New Jersey, and primarily Massachusetts housed breeding grounds for bands that were calling their music “metalcore”. Keep in mind this was not the first time this term was used, but it was being popularized and becoming reassigned. Metalcore no longer meant Machine Head or Aftershock, it meant Killswitch Engage, Bleeding Through, and Shadows Fall. These bands consisted of the fast thrashing verses of 80’s underground metal, overlayed with the guitar melodies of the Swedish scene, epic (almost always clean vocalized) choruses, and the inclusion of many, many breakdowns. These bands truly did take the spider webbed mess of hardcore, thrash, melo-death, and groove, combining their favorite aspects of each and constructing a fully formed unique genre. Metalcore was both harsh and heavy enough to please die-hard metalheads, yet melodic and catchy enough to have mainstream appeal, and it changed absolutely everything within the genre of heavy metal forever.
Suddenly, all across the United States bands are sprouting up and becoming wildly popular among people in all walks of life. U.S. military men were listening to Lamb of God, teenage girls were listening to All That Remains, kids who were into Slipknot for life were suddenly foregoing their masked idols for Chimaira, and even my own parents were falling in love with Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying. It was like the glam rock movement all over again, but these bands were actually talented and making original music that you could headbang and sing along to at the same time.
Now, for you naysayers that were born in 1972 that loved death metal before death metal was cool, I understand that you never “got” all of that “pussy” clean singing, but for a kid who just spent his whole middle school listening to Godsmack and whatever terrible music was in his older brother’s music collection, this was pretty refreshing. I’m a firm believer that we are not responsible for whatever corporate swill that we had rolling around in our portable cd players on the bus ride to school in Jr. High, but at the same time, it is pretty difficult to make a leap from Korn to Deicide. This is why metalcore was so important– finally metal had a way to bridge the gap to real metal from fake metal for those of us unfortunate enough to get duped into laying down 15 dollars on a Linkin Park album, and at the time it was really cool music. Suddenly kids were trading in their Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, and Staind shirts for Zao, The Agony Scene and God Forbid.
Once the core fairy had her way with the popular metal scene, she moved on to sprinkle her magical dust on the much more underground scene, and just like clock work, death metal bands were becoming popular. Then again, it wasn’t quite death metal. It was a newly formed genre known as “deathcore”, which was composed of one of metal’s most extreme subgenres, infused with the melodies and catchy breakdowns of metalcore, matched with a mallcore trendy aesthetics. At first, it was cool, but it wore out faster than metalcore.
I know all of this so well, because I grew up in the middle of all of it. I was a metalcore fan in highschool and I am thankful for it, as it was a gateway for me to burrow further into the underground and become a fully fledged metal fiend. Soon enough I was listening to bands such as All Shall Perish and Job for a Cowboy (although at this point I was also fully versed in Behemoth, Nile and Opeth, so I wasn’t a total noob), and that’s when I started to notice something about this new wave that was a little off-putting– everything was starting to sound the same.
Deathcore and metalcore bands were all starting to sound EXACTLY the same, within their respective genres. Things got to a point where the music was unlistenable, because every band did the same overdone tricks of the trade. So I began to latch onto death, black and doom metal more firmly, and I was discovering that while people were wasting time on The Devil Wears Prada, there were REAL metal bands, producing music that was influencing the mainstream groups, yet they were making about a tenth of the money. Infinitely more talented and with way longer of a resume, a band like Suffocation has never played Ozzfest, and a band like Devil Driver who is clearly influenced by them has played many.
So how did this happen? How did the metal world I grew to understand flip upside down and why did it seem to all come back to that same infamous word– core?
When you examine it from a marketing standpoint it all makes sense. “Core” does not mean the same thing as core. When I say “core” what I am referring to is the product of hardcore’s influence on metal. It is the smoothed out pieces and parts that have been refined and polished over the years. “Core” is a kit that your band can use when they have run out of ideas to fill in the weak spots of your song writing. Every breakdown has been done a million times in this genre– they are doing NOTHING but recycling riffs of other bands at this point, with zero ingenuity for song writing. Don’t believe me? Listen to a song by Suicide Silence, Chelsea Grin, and Carnifex all in a row– it will sound like the same constant breakdown with the same singer doing the deathcore equivalent of “good cop-bad cop” vocals and ridiculous symbol crashing.
However, core is the hardened diamond in its purest form that has rough edges and bits of limestone stuck to it; it’s still not a perfected idea and has a little bit of pliability to its definition. Grindcore is the supreme example of this as is traditonal hardcore. If you are celibate of all core and have any curiousity, I suggest you check out anything by Nasum or Eyehategod and that should put your mind at ease that there is good core music out there.
The problem is “core” has completely taken over and has become a monstrosity that rules the metal surface world with an iron fist through sheer marketability alone. I know this, because I was an employee of Hot Topic for over a year. The amount of people coming in and asking for Escape the Fate shirts trumps Suffocation shirts everytime (and Suffocation has NYC Hardcore influences to boot). I’m not saying there aren’t a few gems out there– I am, after all, a huge Despised Icon fan, but that does not redeem the impenetrable force that is pushing true metal out of existence. Or at least it was, before vinyl and old true metal styles started to come back into the mainstream. Bands like Ghost, Mastodon and Electric Wizard give me faith that true metal is not dead, nor shall it ever be while they still create music.
Then again, if you really think about it, this isn’t a new problem is it? Every age of metal has been plagued with the most terrible mainstream representation. In the 80’s there was glam, convincing everyone that metalheads were transexuals, the 90’s fell victim to nu-metal bands making it seem like we loved wearing addidas clothing and guest appearances by Ice Cube (Korn) and now people believe that we wear flat bills and have shitty spiky anime haircuts. There will always be some ass-sucking caricature of the underground, while true metal keeps being the same catatcombs of death and leather that its been since the 70’s.