The music business is brutal. Even if you succeed – your music gets released by a label, people buy it and fans come to your gigs – there is no guarantee that your career won’t crash and burn. The history of rock and pop is filled with artists that disappeared as suddenly as they arrived. A hit album or two and then the follow-up stiffs. In memorium: Terence Trent D’Arby, Elastica, Kula Shaker…the list goes on.

Artists will blame their labels, the media and sometimes even themselves for their failures. Sometimes they even blame the fans. And there’s no doubt that fandom can be fickle. Perhaps loving a particular artist is so bound up in a particular stage in one’s life that it can never evolve, perhaps fans cannot cope with an artist’s sound changing. In any case, no one owes an artist a living.

But metal is different. Metal values loyalty, endurance and commitment perhaps more than any other music scene does.  When a metal band develops a following it rarely completely loses it. Sure, after the first few albums the fans may not be particularly excited to hear new material, but they will often buy it anyway and will still turn out when a band tours. Slayer haven’t released an album that anyone got really excited about since 1990, but their subsequent albums still get bought (if perhaps not in the same quantities) and they are still as much of a live draw as ever. Some bands even manage to achieve new artistic peaks years after they began – recent albums by Napalm Death and Motorhead, for example, are as strong as the early stuff.

The metal media also generally avoids the ‘build them up and knock them down’ mentality of the rest of the music press. Even if reviews of a late-period album by the likes of Iron Maiden may be decent rather than ecstatic, they are usually respectful. Metal journalists don’t generally hunt for reasons to knock down metal legends.

At its worst this loyalty and commitment can make for a maddeningly conservative metal scene. Many bands put out endless drearily similar releases long after any spark of inspiration has departed. At its best, metal upholds values of loyalty, commitment and community in a world where such values are often under threat.

Sometimes though, the loyalty fades. On rare occasions a band that has been rapturously celebrated for decades releases something that triggers a backlash. Because it’s relatively rare, backlash in metal is a phenomenon worth investigating. This year two such albums have released – Opeth’s Heritage and Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus.

Both albums (Opeth’s ninth and Morbid Angel’s eighth) are by long-established, successful bands with large followings and substantial critical praise. Heritage and Illud Divinum Insanus represent departures from the bands’ previous work and have occasioned significant criticism in the metal press and blogosphere because of it. Opeth have moved on from the previous challenging progressive metal to a sound that resembles a modernised version of 70s progressive rock. Morbid Angel have incorporated industrial and aggrotech influences into their technical death metal sound. Morbid Angel have received the most criticism, with a Hitler Downfall video circulated widely in which the album is accused of the album of consisting of ‘Rob Zombie’s cast offs’.  

What’s interesting about the criticism is that both bands’ new directions should not have come as a surprise. Both albums are really only continuations of incipient tendencies in the bands’ previous work. Opeth have really only moved one step further on from their progressive metal noodlings. Morbid Angel have in the past had gabber and industrial remixes of their work and vocalist/bassist David Vincent – now returned to the fold for the first time since the band’s fourth album Domination in 1995 – had spent some of the intervening years in the industrial band the Genitorturers. Vincent and guitarist Trey Azagthoth always had a wilful and self-indulgent streak as had Opeth’s mainman Mikael Ã…kerfeldt.

So what seems to have happened is that until now, Opeth and Morbid Angel had been received in the metal world in the traditional fashion – fans and critics showed loyalty and buried their misgivings to some extent (even through such low points as Morbid Angel’s lacklustre previous two albums). When the bands crossed some invisible line, when they went somehow too far, all the previously repressed doubts suddenly burst to the surface.

Something similar happened with Metallica’s infamous 2003 album St. Anger. Fans and critics had supported the band throughout the 1990s as the band struggled through Load and ReLoad to find a sound that suited them. They stood by the band through the country music experiments and orchestral collaborations. But by St Anger something had snapped. It probably had a lot to do with the band’s very public fight against Napster and the rampant hypocrisy of a band for whom tape trading had been crucial in their early success. The album itself was dismissed as directionless, badly produced and badly played.

I’m one of the minority who thinks that St Anger wasn’t as bad as it’s often portrayed. There are some brutally intense moments and it was at least a step away from the heavy rock that they spent the latter 1990s toying with. In fact there is a potent irony that just when Metallica had come to re-embrace extreme metal they were abandoned by those who had suffered in silence in the 1990s. Once again, it seems that metal’s invisible boundaries are so powerful that when they break, they do so powerfully, painfully and even capriciously.

Yet in metal there is always room for repentance. Judas Priest horrified many with their 1986 album Turbo with its synthesisers and glossy production sheen (in my opinion it’s a highly underrated album, and probably their most delightfully homoerotic (and that’s saying something)) only to ‘recover’ with the unapologetically fundamentalist Ram It Down (1988) and, above all, Painkiller (1990). Metallica also recovered some ground with 2008’s Death Magnetic and they never lost their pulling power as a live act.

All of the albums I’ve discussed here are unimpeachable to the extent that they involve the kind of virtuoso musicianship that metal is renowned for. Metal bands may make questionable artistic choices, but they are rarely actively incompetent. Just to get to the position where an album can be released, bands in most metal genres need to be able to play intricately and flawlessly (grindcore is a partial exception to this rule, pace Anal Cunt.)  So it is very rare for an established band to release an album that is sloppy and cack-handed. When this happens, the scene tends to be merciless, regardless of the bands previous status.

One of the most notorious examples of a truly incompetent metal album by an established band, is Celtic Frost’s fourth album Cold Lake (1988). Celtic Frost’s guitarist/singer Tom G. Warrior has never been a particularly accomplished musician or singer. But the band’s previous albums, together with Warrior’s previous band Hallhammer’s demos, were seminal in the emerging extreme metal scene, influential on death, doom and black metal. Somehow the erratic vocals and often simplistic riffing were more than compensated with the wild creativity of a band testing the boundaries of what was possible in metal. On Cold Lake though, Warrior tried to make Celtic Frost into a glam metal band along the lines of Motley Crue. The weak singing, lousy lyrics (‘Juices like wine’ anyone?) and indifferent production make the album’s reputation deservedly poor. The metal scene’s quality control standards, usually so generous, could not fail to be invoked in this instance.

Metal, like any other genre in music or in any other art form, needs criticism in order to progress artistically. But the metal scene as a whole has never quite decided how to institute a critical language. The commitment to the scene as a safe communal space makes criticism a difficult activity in metal. Perhaps in today’s metal scene, indelibly marked by the multiplicity of online voices, challenging criticism is more prevalent than it once was. It remains immature though, subject to the contradictions and ironies that have marked the reactions to Morbid Angel and Opeth’s new albums.

Photograph courtesy of Stephan Olsen. Published under a Creative Commons license.