It seems that now more than ever that it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, a fact I realised following the news of metal titans Judas Priest’s impending retirement. Priest’s retirement will be lamented by the rock world, however the greater cause for concern amongst the rock community should be the apparent lack of suitable successors for Priest, or indeed the other great rock bands inexorably moving towards the twilight of their careers. Look at the headline acts of hard rock/metal festivals in the last 5 years – the vast majority enjoyed their creative and commercial peak in the 1980s. Subsequently, with the impending retirement of acts such as Priest, the rock/metal genre is seemingly heading for a crisis.
Recent festival headliners hold the key to the situation. Iron Maiden and Metallica stand as the two greatest possible coups for a metal festival as the unrivalled titans of the genre. Of the three Sonisphere festivals held one of the two bands has been the major draw at each event. However both will have probably ceased to be musically active by the close of the decade. Maiden’s members will not allow their incredible noughties revival to be tainted by an inglorious, irrelevant farewell in far off years to come. Similarly Metallica’s collective members are fast approaching 50 and given Hetfield’s prior health issues and their relative lack of inspiration post-1988 it seems another decade of Metallica is unlikely. Other festival headliners such as Def Leppard, AC/DC and Kiss are by comparison aged dinosaurs approaching extinction, still able to attract decent crowds from their own generation but having failed to connect to younger fans. Unfortunately newer headliners such as Linkin Park, Slipknot and SOAD have lacked genuine staying power within the heavy rock community, serving to divide rather than unite fans of the genre.
Divisions have been rife within the heavy rock world following the 1980s. The rise of death and black metal in thrash’s wake tangibly lessened the common ground amongst metal fans culminating in the fragmented metal world today characterised by an almost limitless number of subgenres. Subsequently, despite being nominally ‘metal’ fans a typical 40 year old fan of Iron Maiden is almost as unlikely to be a fan of Behemoth or Decapitated as a 40 year old Coldplay fan. To me, Iron Maiden’s great riff, vocals and beautiful guitar harmonies and solos on ‘Powerslave’ serve as a perfect musical example of metal. However to a fan of technical death metal blast beats at 300 BPM and ‘pig squealing’ vocals may be more representative of metal music. In short, the vast differences within the genre mean that heavy rock fans can potentially have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a shared love of riffs reminiscent of a T Rex driving a steamroller into your psyche.
The ’00s much-vaunted new breed of metal acts spearheaded by the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal failed to set the world afire despite endorsement by Metallica and other established acts. Its leaders Trivium inexplicably squandered their enormous potential with the terribly derivative Metallica worshipping ‘The Crusade’ and subsequently never recovered. Similarly Lamb of God proved incapable of innovation beyond Pantera worship. Contemporaries Shadows Fall unceremoniously slipped away whereas Killswitch Engage, Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet for my Valentine alienated the core of the metal community by diluting their already rather tepid sound in search of mainstream recognition. The thrash revival bands such as Municipal Waste and Evile has similarly failed as no band has gone beyond imitating their heroes. However there are still some great metal acts in the ascendant. Mastodon have gone from underground heroes to the genre’s rallying flagship and their forthcoming LP The Hunter is eagerly anticipated by all who have become zealous fans of a truly special band. Machine Head’s redemption culminated with 2007’s masterful The Blackening and their forthcoming effort Unto the Locust is similarly anticipated, as is the new Opeth album. However, all 3 of these acts are decidedly on the progressive end of the metal spectrum and as a result are perhaps too obtuse to truly unify the genre.
What is clear is that hard rock/metal has never been more popular. Supporting Megadeth in 2008 were the (in my opinion) totally uninspired, unoriginal deathcore act Job For A Cowboy – yet the band had already clocked up over 8 million plays on Myspace on the strength of an EP. The metal scene is a burgeoning one and great new bands are there – ’ brilliant Blue Record recently cementing my faith in that one! However there is the possibility that acts such as Iron Maiden will not have a successor, and that that particular chapter of rock’s history is over. With such choice available and the vastly differing dynamic nature of the modern heavy rock/metal genre, perhaps no new band can write a ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ or ‘Master of Puppets’, songs that transcend differences and unite all in celebration of the power of the genre. This would be a sad occurrence, however many bands and fans alike will view the impending vacuum at the very pinnacle of the genre as an opportunity rather than a cause for concern. If the next generation’s leaders can fashion their inevitably diverse influences into something new but grounded in the genre’s heritage, the world of heavy rock could emerge stronger than ever. As a lifelong fan of the genre: to the next big thing (Just not Job For A Cowboy).