Toward a Theory of False Metal

Or, Things I Would Rather Write About Than the New Record by The Sword

Or, I Can’t Fucking Take It Any More: In Which A Non-Alignment Pact Writer Talks About Something Other Than KTRU

Sorry guys, I need to talk about some actual music for a while in an attempt to regain my equilibrium.

Hey look at that, the Sword just released a new record on Tuesday. Normally this is the type of record I might review for 29-95.com, but I’m not going to do that because I just don’t like the Sword. I think their musicianship is weak, their riffs are dumb and all of their songs sound the same.

That’s right. I’m a hater. But one thing that I do not hold against The Sword is that they are a “hipster metal” band. Now, that’s not because I think that the tag is inaccurate. On the contrary, I think that it describes a real stylistic phenomenon in hard rock- music that has some superficial resemblance to metal, but actually has roots in some other kind of music. The “hipster metal” epithet emphasizes the “superficial” part of this formulation, implying that the music is intended for dilettantes who get their ideas about underground music from mainstream culture (i.e. think all metal is guys that look like KISS playing Sabbath songs) and basically don’t know actual heavy metal from a hole in the ground.

I don’t think this is necessarily the case, although music critics certainly have a tendency to turn into those idiots when they try to write about metal. I think that it’s possible to make non-metal music that sounds like metal for some reason, either intentional or unintentional, without having the end result be something that is itself superficial. Instead of “hipster metal,” call it “false metal.” Like a “false scorpion.” It’s not like those dudes are any worse at being arachnids because they look like something they ain’t.

Maybe we can get closer to some parameters if we look at some records that might fall into the category. Why yes, you clever donkey- this is an excuse to talk about bands I like better than the Sword.

ZZ Top, Tres Hombres (1973)

Top have wicked riffs and awesome solos and their music is heavy as shit, and Billy Gibbons’s singing voice isn’t much more polished than Lemmy’s. But I don’t think anybody would seriously call Top a metal band. For one thing, their records aren’t very loud. For another, their blues influences are too prominent. This is a heavy blues record, not a metal record, even though it shares some characteristics with metal.

Sleep, Holy Mountain (1993)

No record calls into question The Sword’s reason for existence more than this one. As far as I’m concerned, Sleep perfected heavy-ass 6/8 Sabbath worship to such an extent that nobody need have attempted it with a straight face afterwards.  Sleep is an interesting band, because while Holy Mountain, in its perverse, almost reactionary rejection of any of the speed-and-technique arms struggle that marked metal from around 1980 on, falls just on the false-metal side of the line, the visionary, monolithic Dopesmoker and Pike’s later band High On Fire step across it to rejoin metal proper, I think.

Cathedral, The Ethereal Mirror (1993)

What was that I said about a straight face? This record, which came out the same year as Holy Mountain, only sounds like lazy doom-rock. On closer examination, the subtle rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of the music, and especially the nutty solos, reveal the metal roots of the musicians. With former Napalm Death vocalist Lee Dorrian crowing rock catchphrases in a ridiculous voice over its crushing riffs, this record really is like a metal band doing a parody of false metal, and doing a pretty fucking kickass job of it too.

Probot (2004)

This record, a solo project by Dave Grohl, has a bona fide metal superstar singing on every track. So why is it on this list? Because the songs are simple, riffy, hi-fi rock songs like those Grohl’s been writing since 1993, just with crazy (or not-so-crazy) metal vocals on top. This is an absolute gem of an introduction to the pop potential of heavy music for people who like punk and hard rock but are confused by the extreme shit.

Jucifer- If Thine Enemy Hunger (2006)

Boris- Pink (2005)

These two bands share one of the Sword’s primary weaknesses, namely lack of technique- Atsuo of Boris is charismatic but really a laughable drummer at times-  but compensate with a penchant for experimentation drawn from Kraut-rock and Sonic Youth.

Jucifer is an incredibly loud live band that can knock you flat with a metal riff when they want to- check out “Superman” from their 1999 debut-  but their overall aesthetic is more like alt-rock, among other things because of their extensive use of the loud/quiet/loud technique. Metal bands do not sound like the Pixies. Hunger is one of Jucifer’s heaviest and, interestingly, most accessible records.

Boris, along with The Sword, are one of the bands most often tarred as “hipster metal.” To my mind, they really aren’t a metal band at all. Because they’re loud and raucous they bear the superficial resemblance to “metal” that qualifies them here, but their songwriting, to me, owes as much to garage rock and probably more to shoegaze. Pink isn’t my favorite Boris record, but it does exemplify what I’m talking about here very well: it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s hard, but it’s not really metal.

Chopper- Born to Ride. . . or Die (2008)

One of my brother’s bands. Colin rarely does much of anything without a wink, but this whole record is like one big joke: a biker-themed speed metal band from three rock geeks who’ve probably never sat on a motorcycle in their lives. My brother used to play in the very un-metal indie band Deerhunter; guitarist George Asimakos used to be in one of the best math-rock bands of the ’00s, the Blame Game, and his playing here owes far more to Bob Mould than Tony Iommi. The gruff, unhinged vocals make this album heavy as shit, but the monster hooks and fuck-you sarcasm push it into the realm of punk rock.

Baroness- Blue Record (2009)

Marshall and I debated Baroness briefly a while back. I never was totally comfortable with them as a metal band, even though I have to agree they aren’t a hard rock band. This band is one of those weird hybrids you find in small towns where dudes who are into different things grow up together: the bass player in Baroness looks like an ’80s thrash dude, the drummer and the guitarist look like preps, and the frontman is a crazy, bearded metal guy.  And they play like this, too- the drumming on the Baroness record, in particular, is about as not-metal as you can get and still be in the neighborhood of Hard. The Blue Record is like a metal band trying to write a Wilco album, failing, and ending up with something else entirely.

Torche- Songs For Singles (2010)

This isn’t even out yet, but I’m not sure if there’s another record I’m looking forward to more right now. Oh wait. Well anyway, Torche is a heavy band, but there’s just too much joy and sunshine in their music to really call it metal. Meanderthal is just an impossibly fun rock record, and I can’t wait to hear more from them. I sure wish the new Torche record had come out this week instead of the Sword.

Final note for the rhetorically challenged members of our readership: please understand that the name “False Metal” implies no disrespect to these bands or to metal. It’s just a way to think about heavy music that isn’t particularly good as metal but might be perfectly fine as something else.

30 comments to Toward a Theory of False Metal

  • RamonLP4

    Awesome. Now follow-up with a column on true metal. :)

  • Thanks, I’m gonna check out Baroness.

    I get what you mean –seems the line is blurring fast. At least here in Chicago where the great and always packed Kuma’s metal burger joint is just down the street from Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.

    My country band is considering recording with this dude.

    Somehow the Melvins wasn’t mentioned in all of this. Perhaps the missing link?

    Fave false metal(?) video.

    • Mee

      Baroness is a crazy band. Give it a few listens before you decide what you think.

      Yeah I probably should have mentioned the Melvins. The original idea for this post was a little different and they didn’t fit for some reason. They’re another band like ZZ Top that nobody actually thinks is metal; they’re like ur-false-metal. They were a big, perhaps the primary, influence on Torche.

  • First, I think I might agree about the Blue Album. Still think the Red Album has quite a bit of true metal heart within it. But it wasn’t really as good.

    Re: Marnie Stern. Hell yes. Assuming it’s even possible to write inventive passionate joyful music anymore, she’s doing it.

  • I’d argue that most of the early bands associated with metal were not pure to the genre, though they helped to invent it. Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Cream, Zeppelin, Trapeze, Deep Purple and even the Beatles did their share. Though I think the first true complete “metal” album was Sabbath’s “Master of Reality”. With the exception of a couple of oddball songs, every one of the tracks bore the common themes of downtuned guitar crunch, doom-laden lyrics, mighty riffs duct-taped together, epic guitar solos, and a departure from (though not abandonment of) pentatonic blues into minor keys. Many of the songs incorporated the trademark metal cadences — galloping, linear rhythms — although others like Sweet Leaf had a bluesy, sludgy tempo that later grunge and stoner bands emulated.

    There aren’t many songs that are more metal than Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” though I think as a whole, I wouldn’t classify them as a metal band. Cream really was just a heavy blues band but there are countless references to them as pioneers of the genre. The same thing could be said about Zeppelin.

    I don’t think “metal” really emerged completely until a second wave of bands added three more signatures of classic metal: dualing harmonic lead guitar phrasing (Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden), quasi-operatic vocals with intense vibrato (Iron Maiden and, one could argue, early Trapeze, Deep Purple and Rainbow, Judas Priest), and increasingly progressive math-rocky riffs and transitions (Thin Lizzy, Maiden, Budgie).

    By the time Metallica rolled around, all these tropes were well established, although I’d be hard pressed to find a proto-metal band in the mid to late 70s that did *all* of these things (maybe Judas Priest?). Even Metallica (after Mustaine left) eschewed operatic vocals for Hetfield’s gutteral sound.

    Cookie monster, blast beats, insane hammer-on and arpeggio solos seem to be later stylistic artifices or exaggerations rather than essential elements. Some of this stuff came through the hardcore punk infusion of the 80s (who can really tell whether Corrosion of Conformity was a hardcore band or a metal band?).

    I’d argue that there are very few bands that really can be defined as “true metal” through their whole career or even on an individual album, though they may have individual songs that are quintessential metal songs. Maybe Slayer… I don’t know. Then there’s the question of whether imagery is an essential part of the metal shtick. Do you have to worship Satan and wear leather, or are those just highly recommended? Do you need to blow stuff up?

    I do know that my old lady can listen to Sabbath, Zeppelin, Cream, Deep Purple or Hendrix, but Iron Maiden drives her nuts because it doesn’t groove the same way. There’s something that jumped the tracks around the time Iron Maiden hit the scene. I don’t want to blame them, because I love some of their early shit — but when heavy music started getting faster, more mathematical, and more linear, it lost something for me. Metallica overcame this by just having awesome and innovative riffs, tons of energy and 86ing the operatic vocals, but I confess that I find some of their longer, high-concept stuff to be pretty tedious even on the earlier records.

    As a whole, I view most of the stylistic characteristics associated with “metal” to be only sizzle, the actual steak is, for me, still the core of heavy blues music that metal evolved from. So I would take issue with Daniel’s caveat:

    “please understand that the name “False Metal” implies no disrespect to these bands or to metal. It’s just a way to think about heavy music that isn’t particularly good as metal but might be perfectly fine as something else”,

    and instead assert that false metal is in fact metal sizzle without the steak: that is, the gratuitous use of metal tropes without any of the firm foundation of solid songwriting, guts, power, soul and groove of the original heavy music that it evolved from. My theory explains why I can love early Judas Priest but not give a damn about Slipknot; why I like Slayer even though they throw every metal cliche in the book at you at light speed, why I find myself troubled by most of Iron Maiden’s catalog but still love a few of their songs, and why I think of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden as classic metal bands despite not really sounding a whole lot like metal on the surface.

    I’d close this diatribe with an anecdote that I think backs up Daniel’s assertion that These Damn Kids Today don’t know metal from their assholes: I was fortunate enough to score some free tickets to a Verizon show that featured High on Fire, Mastodon, and — you guessed it — Dethklok. Well, I figured, it’s a metal show; they can’t possibly start it on time at 8pm, so of course I got drunk and pissed around until arriving around 9:30, only to find that High on Fire had already played, that another *real* metal band, Mastodon, was already halfway through their set — and then watched with the horror that only a truly old fart can muster, as hordes of screaming kids went apeshit for Dethklok. They were being fed pure ironic metal played by a cartoon band, and eating it up like fat kids hitting cobbler at the county fair. Dethklok is extremely well-done and clever, don’t get me wrong — but for fuck’s sake… I left feeling, probably not for the first or last time, that the genre was completely dead.

    • Mee

      Just a reminder, this is a borderline silly discussion about a topic with no importance at all, so please view all statements below with the appropriate amount of seriousness.

      I love Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy too, but I don’t think I would call them “metal” in the sense that we mean it today. Maiden, Priest, Motorhead and Sabbath, not Zeppelin and Cream (the Beatles?), are the starting point of what’s been referred to as “heavy metal” for the past 30 years. Blast beats and “cookie monster” vocals (i.e. grindcore, death metal and black metal) have been around almost that entire time. If you view metal as having “jumped the tracks” around the time that the style as it’s known today came into being, I have to wonder if you’ve considered the possibility that you don’t actually like metal. ;)

      As far as what “false metal” is, the point of this post is not that any of this music is “false” in the pejorative sense, which is what you mean by saying “false metal is in fact metal sizzle without the steak.” What I’m saying is that there is music that sounds metal-ish but doesn’t actually have that much to do with what’s been going on in the metal world for the last few decades, and it’s useful to have a name that is less dismissive than “hipster metal.” Calling Dethklok “false metal” is actually the exact opposite of what I’m saying here, because the music Brendon Small wrote for Dethklok displays an intense engagement with what’s been referred to as metal since 1980. I didn’t particularly enjoy watching Dethklok, but I have to admit that the music is true extreme metal, even though they’re a fake band.

      Finally,
      “These Damn Kids Today don’t know metal from their assholes”
      I do not think this; I was representing it as the motivation behind the epithet “hipster metal.” And to the extent I represented that viewpoint, it believes that the bluesy, groovy music represented by the Sword and the bands I’ve named above is NOT metal and the extreme stuff is.

      • Daniel,

        Sorry, I took the liberty of mis-paraphrasing you with the These Damn Kids Today quote. That was actually my own voice, though I was inspired by your comment about “dilettantes who get their ideas about underground music from mainstream culture (i.e. think all metal is guys that look like KISS playing Sabbath songs) and basically don’t know actual heavy metal from a hole in the ground.”

        I guess the simplest way to make my point is to say that there’s heavy music, which has been around a long, long time — since the Beatles (think Helter Skelter or Yer Blues), Vanilla Fudge, Blue Cheer and Cream. Then there’s metal, which I think was really invented by Black Sabbath but distilled by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and others starting in the mid to late 70s. In my own Venn Diagram, I would have two circles: one that says Metal, and has King Diamond, Iron Maiden and Celtic Frost in it — another, that says Heavy, and has Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer and Cream in it. These circles overlap in a space called Heavy Metal, and in that space is Black Sabbath. To your point, I really like the things in the Heavy Circle and the Heavy Metal circle, but like the things in the Metal circle less.

        A side point is that if we agree with your argument that Cream, Zeppelin, Blue Cheer and other heavy blues grand daddies aren’t actually metal, that basically means that Black Sabbath single handedly invented the entire genre of metal by themselves, while simultaneously being the heaviest band ever. This would automatically make them the greatest band of all time, a point that I have long maintained.

        I understand your argument that False Metal isn’t a pejorative term — but it may be anachronistic, if applied to bands like Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer or Cream, since these bands all pre-dated the formation of True Metal. Perhaps these bands exist in a kind of Metal purgatory, like the Greek philosophers whose Christian admirers could not bear to send to Hell for their paganism since they lived before Christ, but who still could not be admitted to heaven.

        Mercygiver, I propose a hostage exchange at Valhalla, or perhaps the Ginger Man. You name the date. I will also weigh in, at any time, on the subject of metal — heavy or otherwise.

        • Mee

          This would automatically make [Black Sabbath] the greatest band of all time

          I like the way you think!

          Zep etc. could be viewed as false-metal-avant-le-lettre, but I’m inclined to think of them more as hard rock bands that were very influential on metal. ZZ Top could more like proto-false-metal, in the same way that Deep Purple is proto-metal.

        • This is a rhetorical comment only, but the phrase Heavy Metal was used in the late 60s to describe acts like Led Zeppelin and Cream. But I think that over time, the sense of what metal was has changed and shifted away from the heavy, blues based arena rock it originally described. I read somewhere that though AC/DC was called Heavy Metal back in the 70s, that to call them metal was as inaccurate then as it is today. I also read that the phrase “Heavy Metal” itself was a pejorative term for a lot of critics, thus it probably was bandied about pretty randomly in the early 70s as a way of saying, “This is some loud ass shit that I don’t really like” rather than “This is music that defines a genre”. So if you sort of invert your argument, you could say that the labeling of bands such as Cream or AC/DC as Heavy Metal was in fact false, thus they are False Metal.

        • Mee

          My head hurts.

        • This probably will only add to the headache, but I found a quote that said that Manowar invented the phrase “False Metal” to describe bullshit hair bands from the 80s.

          Sorry. I’ll stop now.

    • Why do you think I referred to them in my comment?

  • Jesus Christ, I just realized how long that post was. Sorry about that… diarrhea of the keyboard…

  • I find it interesting that all of this is about something that never really ought to be called metal. Kinda makes me wonder just what the fuck is metal after all.

    Kidding aside, Baroness vocals remind me more than a little bit of Ian Mackaye’s vocals in Fugazi. I agree that as a whole the Blue Album is a triumph. Not to detract from the Red one, which I love as well, just not quite as much.

    I love Tres Hombres, and get why it’s on your list, but I wouldn’t have thought of it myself. There’s nothing even metalish about it to me, heavy though it may be.

    That Red Fang video is brilliant.

    The Probot stuff always sounded generic to me, which may be the point.

    Holy Mountain is one of my all-time favorite albums, and one day, Aging Scenester is going to orchestrate a trade with me in which he returns my Holy Mountain CD in exchange for his Joy Division book I’ve had since high school.

    And just because some guy who loves Manowar and Behemoth more than anything in the world thinks something to which you refer isn’t metal ultimately adds up to exactly nothing in my book.

    Metal’s what you make it. That’s why Sunn O))) is so great.

    Wanna take part in my metal interview/questionnaire I am putting together, Danny? Anyone else? Love metal? Let me know and I’ll forward you the questions.

    Great post. as usual.

    God, am I rhetorically challenged.

    • Mee

      And just because some guy who loves Manowar and Behemoth more than anything in the world thinks something to which you refer isn’t metal ultimately adds up to exactly nothing in my book.

      So fucking true.

      See my reply to Scenester re: ZZ Top.

      Sure, I’ll take part in your interview, with the caveat that my own interest in metal is in fact that of a dilettante.

      • Danny, your love of music, period, is enough to carry over into the heavy stuff. I don’t care in the slightest about scene nonsense, I just love heavy music. My interviews will celebrate that. Once I compile all the info I will try to wrap it around my own impassioned testimonial for the damn stuff. Thanks.

        Anyone else love heavy music and want to answer some questions about it? Hit me up.

  • Erik B.

    Not really into that Boris-Pink record, though every time I saw Boris in a live setting it’s been a great experience. To me, Boris sounds like the heavier elements of Smashing Pumpkins, which I really like (raised on radio, y’know.) So yeah, not really metal in a traditional sense. There’s this “high tech” approach to it. Now if Boris would only start writing whiny, crooning ballads.

  • mike

    i’ve come into this from the side, as i’ve always loved music of almost any genre, and i purchased Warp Riders on a whim at the record store, having heard “how heavy this ax” and a couple other songs on youtube. It was not until later that i learned about the apparent dislike for all that is the Sword in the metal community. this being said, that Warp Riders is a great rock and roll album, it really doesn’t fit with their earlier albums, as far as i can tell and because of this, i’ll get around to purchasing them when i can, mainly because i cant stop chanting; “how heavy this ax.”

    i feel it is safe to say that warp riders is a damn good jumping off point to finding what’s going on right now with new rock and metal bands and that anyone with discerning taste will understand that this album is a devolution and that if it doesn’t give you the metal fix you crave, there is an entire world of metal out there that isn’t the “hardcore” crap that’s being pushed tward you by the “metal media”

    …i’m probably way off….

  • I guess my question is this:

    Why pretend to be something you are not?

    You change on the surface, but not inside. It’s a costume.

    While it might be an interesting experiment, once, it seems more like infiltration.

    However, he raises an interesting point.

    Hipster metal is not just a regular band making a metal or metal-ish record. Enough have done that successfully that the process should be viewed as metal influencing the wider spectrum of music.

    Hipster metal is insincere metal. It’s hipsters — surface > form — creating metal, ironically, so they have some new and unique/different combination to show off.

    It is whore, at its heart and in its soul, even if its skin is metal.

  • I think the first true complete “metal” album was Sabbath’s “Master of Reality”. With the exception of a couple of oddball songs, every one of the tracks bore the common themes of downtuned guitar crunch, doom-laden lyrics, mighty riffs duct-taped together, epic guitar solos, and a departure from (though not abandonment of) pentatonic blues into minor keys. Many of the songs incorporated the trademark metal cadences — galloping, linear rhythms — although others like Sweet Leaf had a bluesy, sludgy tempo that later grunge and stoner bands emulated.

    This seems to me a very solid statement of what metal is about. Not sure the riffs are duct-taped together so much as arranged on the basis of phrasal similarity in a narrative.

    I don’t think “metal” really emerged completely until a second wave of bands added three more signatures of classic metal: dualing harmonic lead guitar phrasing (Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden), quasi-operatic vocals with intense vibrato (Iron Maiden and, one could argue, early Trapeze, Deep Purple and Rainbow, Judas Priest), and increasingly progressive math-rocky riffs and transitions (Thin Lizzy, Maiden, Budgie).

    This is why NWOBHM is given such historical importance. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Budgie, Angel Witch, etc. refined the technique quite a bit, but also took it away from its original ideal. This is possibly the influence of later 1970s power prog.

    After this, the speed metal legions (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Slayer) fused the NWOBHM with more of the original metal idea, and the hardcore punk style of intense chromatic riffing.

    From that, taken to an extreme, we get death metal; add melody and drop a little bit of the structuralism to make it more atmospheric, and you get black metal. After that, the deluge.

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