Essay

How Five Finger Death Punch Got Huge By Writing Songs For Soldiers

If the Billboard Top 200 chart was still based on album sales alone, Five Finger Death Punch would have the #1 album in America right now. Their sixth album, Got Your Six, sold 114,000 albums in its first week; the next best contender, the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness, sold 77,000 last week. However, the Weeknd’s album was streamed many more times, granting him a total of 145,000 “equivalent album units” (10 digital track sales, or 1500 song streams of an album, count the same as an album sold) to 5FDP’s 119,000. This is the band’s third album in a row to hit #2 on the charts; 2011’s American Capitalist debuted at #3.

Five Finger Death Punch are probably the least cool metal band around right now. Critics pretty much hate them (a reaction that’s likely to get worse, now that guitarist Zoltan Bathory has endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Twitter); metal elitists sneer at them and consider them knuckle-dragging, lowest-common-denominator purveyors of post-Pantera crap. But they’re able to sell 114,000 albums in a week, which means they’re reaching an audience your average blog-friendly metal band can’t even dream of. And I have a theory about that audience: I think Five Finger Death Punch have succeeded by building a relationship with listeners in the military, in a way other bands haven’t.

As long as there’s been metal, there have been metal songs about war, and they’ve frequently expressed solidarity with soldiers. Think Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”; think Metallica’s “Disposable Heroes” and “One”; think Mot├Ârhead’s “Voices From The War” and “When The Eagle Screams” and probably dozens more; think Slayer’s “Eyes Of The Insane,” which won them a Grammy. Even Dream Theater made “The Enemy Inside,” a song about battling PTSD, the first single from their last album. But 5FDP have taken things much farther than their peers. Not only do they employ the imagery of combat in many songs, they also actively support soldiers in a myriad of ways.

When they were promoting their twin 2013 albums The Wrong Side Of Heaven And The Righteous Side Of Hell, Volumes 1 and 2, frontman Ivan Moody told ArtistDirect, “When we were over in Iraq playing our USO tour, I had one soldier come up to me, and he laid a burnt iPod down on the table. He didn’t ask me to sign it. He wanted me to keep it. I looked at him a bit funny at first. He told me one of his closest friends went out on a mission and didn’t make it back. Let’s leave it at that. When they found him and his things, his iPod was stuck on ‘The Bleeding.’ The last thing he was listening to before he went was one of our songs. I literally teared up.”

(Footage from that 2010 USO tour can be seen in the video for the band’s popular, but impressively awful cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company”.)

Around the same time, in an interview with Loudwire about the video for “Wrong Side Of Heaven,” Bathory said, “Generally the band employs a lot of veterans anyway, in the past and in the future. Every time you can help with something it’s great, so we had many drivers, those were veterans, guitar techs — so it’s an ongoing thing and every time we can employ veterans we do.”

That song was intended to draw attention to the plight of veterans with PTSD, and the group set up 5fdp4vets.com, which sells merch to raise money, and provides links to organizations that offer help.

Got Your Six may not be directly linked to charity in that way, but the band’s focus on the military as inspiration and fanbase continues. The album’s title track is a bit of soldier-talk that’s filtered into street slang, and its lyrics compare moshpits to combat. But the dominant message of the album is violent rage and alienation from society:

  • The first single, “Jekyll And Hyde,” begins with the words “There’s just so much goddamn weight on my shoulders/ All I’m trying to do is live my motherfucking life/ Supposed to be happy but I’m only getting colder/ Wear a smile on my face but there’s a demon inside.”
  • The song “My Nemesis” includes the lines “Don’t need the memory/ Already wear the scars.”
  • And “Hell To Pay” begins, “Feels like I’m running in place/ A past I can’t erase/I’m breaking, breaking apart/ (I know they’re after me)/ It’s like I’m fading each day/ They took it all away/ Left nothing, nothing but scars/ (They make it hard to breathe).”

Now, obviously, this kind of imagery is pretty universal; pissed-off teenagers could certainly hear it speaking to them. But the 5FDP audience skews a little older than that (as evidenced by the number of physical CDs they sell), and their words are likely to have a stronger resonance for people who’ve served in combat and come back changed, whether physically or mentally/emotionally. Combine that with things like (as mentioned in the interview with Bathory linked above) soldiers donating their dog tags to 5FDP for display as part of their touring stage backdrop, and you’ve got a relationship between band and audience that’s unique and powerful.

Five Finger Death Punch have just kicked off their first headlining arena tour in support of Got Your Six, with similarly uncool-but-popular acts Papa Roach and In This Moment opening up. The tour was routed with the help of a demand campaign, and it’s notable that it basically bypasses every hip place in America, landing in upstate New York instead of Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center, and including two shows each in Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Recently, signs have popped up at Donald Trump rallies that read, “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump.” The same thing could be said about Five Finger Death Punch, it seems.