Metal’s Stadium Class Is Less Metal Than Ever

Andy Gallagher

Metal’s Stadium Class Is Less Metal Than Ever

Andy Gallagher

Let’s just get this out of the way up top: No, metal isn’t dead. If you look around the underground today, there are plenty of thriving pockets: death metal, black metal, doom, thrash, sludge, etc. Metal as a holistic genre of music is alive and well. But as a cultural force that extends beyond small clubs, filling stadiums and festival grounds worldwide and provoking the uninitiated masses with its wicked sounds and filth-mongering imagery, metal — the sound, spirit, and culture — is in a precarious state. The genre’s longstanding A-listers feel less vital (and less cool) than ever, and the generation of bands who are slated to take their place are less metal (and arguably less cool) than at any previous era in the genre’s history.

Metallica and Megadeth are each more popular and more uninteresting than they’ve ever been — safe, sterile, and flagrantly leveraging their brand values to disrupt the whiskey and NFT markets. Slipknot are little more than a masked LLC at this point, shedding beloved members, getting sued by the estate of a dead one, and barely keeping a lid on their creative bankruptcy, all while frontman Corey Taylor pursues one of the worst solo careers in recent memory. Ozzy Osbourne is too incapacitated to tour, but has enough spring in his step to bang out a third LP with grandad-whisperer Andrew Watt, the 33-year-old whizkid who oversaw Ozzman’s geriatric jerk-off anthem on 2022’s woefully limp Patient Number 9. I can already feel the anticipation building around which Pearl Jam guitarist will guest on the next album. Heavy fucking metal! Speaking of make-work programs for Zakk Wylde, Pantera are touring again — and without the co-founding Abbott brothers — but somehow that doesn’t feel as heinous as Static-X barreling forward in “tribute” (i.e. cha-ching) to late singer-songwriter Wayne Static. It appears that Linkin Park are about to do the same thing.

Avenged Sevenfold took seven years to follow their Elon Musk-inspired 2016 dumpster fire, The Stage, with 2023’s Life Is But A Dream…, a pseudo-intellectual shitstorm inspired by Daft Punk and Yeezus that’s genuinely more grating to listen to than Lulu. To make matters worse, the band, arguably the closest thing the 21st century has produced to a capital-“m” Metal act who can fill stadiums when Metallica and Mötley Crüe aren’t in town, see heavy music’s future in Silicon Valley, having inundated their fans with NFT evangelizing, atrocious-looking VR concerts, and their “heavy-metal approach to token-gated ticketing” — i.e. partnering with Live Nation on a blockchain ticketing service. “It’s your fuckin’ nightmare” indeed, boys.

Who’s left? Judas Priest and Iron Maiden have, at most, a decade left in the tank. Korn will continue to release the same song every three years for the rest of eternity if they can, but Limp Bizkit’s improbable return to headliner status already feels doomed as nu-metal’s memetic revival starts to wither. Deftones are thriving, no doubt about that, but they’re an anomaly among their peers. System Of A Down hate each other and will likely never tour again (although they did just announce a special one-off show with Deftones). Rage Against The Machine (probably) hate each other and will likely never tour again. Marilyn Manson is certainly hated but will, unfortunately, tour again. The alleged serial abuser will make his controversial comeback this summer opening for Five Finger Death Punch, who’ve cornered the market on Pantera cosplay and army recruitment office balladry now that A7X are off in the meta-verse. But don’t worry, Tool are still kickin’, and they’ve got plenty of $2,500 tour posters and $800 fetus-in-skull sculptures to go around.

That’s the state of A-list metal in 2024. So who’s coming to save us from a fate where Disturbed and Breaking Benjamin inherit the remaining headlining slots at festivals like Download and Aftershock? Death metal diehards might not give a shit, but this stuff matters to the overall health of the genre. Metal has always been more than just a marginal sound and community; it’s one of the biggest and most commercially successful subcultures in the world, and there’s always been a considerable tangent of metal that occupies these more general-interest spaces. That upper echelon of metal — typified by hair-metal in the early ’80s and thrash later in the decade, to nu-metal and groove-metal in the ’90s, to the NWOAHM bands in the 2000s — provides a crucial entrypoint into this world that eventually leads people down to the underground. Moreover, this upper class of festival-ruling headliners serves a different cultural and communal function than the small club circuit: a populist space where metal can flaunt its bombastic, high-volume, high-octane spirit with thousands of heads banging along in horn-raising, hair-whipping, circle-pitting harmony.

But seriously. What will that world look like in 10 years when the same legacy bands who’ve been headlining festivals for the last two (or three — or four) decades inevitably retire? In the early 2000s, after the nu-metal boom subsided but before metalcore became an industry unto itself, the crown was gifted to Linkin Park, Evanescence, and Disturbed, bands who found enormous success splicing accessible metal elements into otherwise sleek, radio-ready hard-rock songs. At that time, the zeitgeist probably felt similarly gloomy to how it does now: the thrash titans’ careers had all bottomed out, the ’90s giants had either fallen off or broken up, and one-song-blunders like Drowning Pool and Papa Roach looked like the genre’s future.

But even then, there was still a strong upper-middle-class of real-deal metal bands waiting in the wings of mainstream domination: Avenged Sevenfold, Lamb Of God, Mastodon, Meshuggah, Gojira, Trivium, Bullet For My Valentine, Killswitch Engage — bands who were decidedly metal, not glossy hard-rock with a metallic finish, and who’ve all achieved veritable headliner status throughout the 21st century, even if only one of them (Avenged Sevenfold) attained Slipknot levels of popularity. That epoch of bands injected enough life support into metal’s above-ground to keep the empire’s lights on for the aughts and 2010s, but it would be foolish to pretend like those bands’ best days aren’t already behind them. Now, who are the bands positioned to become the next Lamb Of Gods? The next Panteras? The next Slayers?

In 2024, that’s looking like Sleep Token, Bad Omens, and Spiritbox — the three biggest metal bands to break out in the 2020s. That trio of groups, who all blend metalcore with various types of mainstream pop, are currently second-in-command to Ghost, Bring Me The Horizon, and Motionless In White, the three arena-ruling champs of the 2010s, who are notably more metal in aesthetics than they are in sound. Ghost play vintage rock ‘n’ roll coated in a light film of doomy metal, Bring Me The Horizon make glitzy pop-rock that’s laced with metalcore breakdowns, and Motionless In White have moved out of gothic metalcore and into being Godsmack for Tim Burton stans. Of all the other metalcore and deathcore bands who made blips on the radar in the 2010s, the only other act whose name now reaches the tops of metal fest fliers are Falling In Reverse — the dark horses of modern metal. Both because they’re only nominally metal (a more apt description would be FFO: Kamikaze-era Eminem, AI MCR, and the Call Of Duty: World At War OST) and because frontman Ronnie Radke’s venal personality supersedes his band’s music within the cultural conversation — despite their ongoing run of astonishingly high-charting singles.

Without making a qualitative judgment about each of those bands’ catalogs, it’s undeniable that the contemporary state of big-room metal is less connected to metal proper than it’s ever been. The definition of metal has obviously expanded tenfold since the opening dirge of Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut, and it’s long encompassed an incalculable number of diverse sub-genres ranging from vomit-inducing extremity to ear-soothing serenity. Bands like Sleep Token and Bring Me The Horizon still fit under the broad banner of metal in the same way Yeat and Bladee both belong under the rap umbrella, even if they both bear little resemblance to their genre ancestors. But the ties that bind these new-age metal heroes to metal’s tradition of killer riffs, abrasive vocals, and provocative imagery feel looser than they’ve ever been.

Let’s start with Ghost since they’re the non-metalcore outliers in this ongoing sea change. The Swedish band helmed by once-anonymous singer-songwriter Tobias Forge rose to prominence on the strength of their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous, and climbed the ranks consistently over the next decade before rocketing to untold fame in 2022 when TikTok took a liking to their unique elixir of dark-rock, doom-metal and Seventies prog-pop. Equally crucial to their appeal is Ghost’s visual gimmick, a campy theater of dead popes (all played by Forge, each one marking a different era of the band) and Nameless Ghouls (anonymous, cloaked background musicians) that are rolled into a cheeky dramaturgy during Ghost’s live shows, one that feels two parts Iron Maiden pomp and one part Madonna pageantry.

Ghost’s Mercyful Fate-indebted corpse paint, luciferian lyrics, and all-around creepy presentation has all the trappings of metal, but the conceit of their music is that it’s actually not metal. An emblematic song of theirs like “Square Hammer” has a metallurgic crunch to its main riff and a submit-yourself-to-Satan lyrical theme, but its hauntingly catchy chorus is a million times more ABBA than Abbath. Despite the band’s occasional flirtations with Maiden-esque guitar leads and Candlemass-ish doom ambiance, Ghost’s music rarely surpasses the proto-Sabbath heaviness of late-’60s occult-rock bands like Coven and Blue Öyster Cult. The way Ghost edge toward metal without ever fully getting there is the central hook of their schtick. They’re dual-wielding two forms of subversion: trojan-horsing Satanic messages through sunny-sounding pop-rock and laundering bright pop melodies through eerie-looking “metal” records.

Whether you’re a non-metalhead who’s unexpectedly seduced by Ghost’s “Scooby-Doo chase music” sound, or a proper hesher who only finds Ghost’s severe poppiness acceptable because of their ghastly aesthetics, the central draw of their music remains the same: The metal-ness is a prop. Ghost aren’t playing metal, they’re playing with it; cheekily adopting metal iconography and anti-Christian ideology to cast themselves as a spooky metal act, and then inverting those expectations with remarkably tuneful songs — that are often co-written with professional pop songwriters. It’s no surprise that they’ve become a huge band because their appeal is obvious: The songs are strong, the aesthetic is finely honed, and Forge is a great entertainer with a clever sense of humor.

But it says a lot about metal’s current moment that one of the genre’s biggest and most institutionally respected acts — who’ve racked up cosigns from Metallica and Judas Priest, have always toured with real-deal metal bands, and have become regulars in the Best Metal Performance Grammy category — aren’t actually a metal band. However, despite having the tamest sound of this era’s throne-inheritors, Ghost still look and feel the most like a quintessential metal band. They’re the only 2010s-era metal band of headlining note whose sound is rooted in a pre-21st century idea of what metal is. All the others are operating within a post-metalcore framework.

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Indeed, one major takeaway about this new crop — Sleep Token, Bring Me The Horizon, Bad Omens, etc. — is that metal’s most popular feature is no longer the riff, but the breakdown. Which is another way of saying that metalcore has finally supplanted thrash as metal’s predominant style. In the early 2000s, it became clear that metalcore was no longer a death-metallized outgrowth of ’90s hardcore, but a genre of its own that was quickly assimilating into the broader metal world. Bands like Killswitch Engage, Underoath, Shadows Fall, As I Lay Dying, God Forbid, and countless others were popularizing a style of music that fused riffy melodic death-metal with chuggy metallic hardcore, and for a minute there, it seemed plausible that one of these bands might even ride VH1 hype to a #1 record the way Pantera did via MTV for their anti-commercial skull-cracker, Far Beyond Driven.

But by the middle of the aughts, it became evident that the metalcore bands who were going to break beyond its mid-sized ceiling were the ones who pivoted away from its harsh, scream-based sound. Killswitch Engage entered the Grammy class with schmaltzy ballads like “The End Of Heartache,” Underoath nabbed emo teens with nasally choruses on 2004’s scene-smashing They’re Only Chasing Safety (establishing a template that’s still guiding the genre today), and Avenged Sevenfold — by far the biggest band ever to emerge from metalcore — became Metallica acolytes by dropping all traces of metalcore on 2005’s GN’R-gone-speed-metal opus City Of Evil, then growing even less heavy on subsequent releases.

By the turn of the 2010s, a new wave of MySpace-fueled metalcore bands were transforming the genre into sleeker, simpler, poppier configurations. Groups like Asking Alexandria, Of Mice & Men, and Attack Attack! sanded down the thrashiness (i.e. the metalness) of metalcore’s riffage and made taut, synchronized breakdowns the main payoff of their songs. Bright synths, cleanly sung choruses (some using Auto-Tune), and hyper-digitized production became some of metalcore’s defining attributes, and cultural hubs like Hot Topic, Warped Tour, and Tumblr stirred this breed of metalcore into a melting pot of neon pop-punk (All Time Low), edgy pop (3OH!3), and various mutations of all three (A Day To Remember, Pierce The Veil) — a milieu that earned the catch-all designation of “scene” music.

Many of the metalcore bands from the scene era made splashes on the charts and became popular touring acts, but none of them immediately got Avenged Sevenfold or Slipknot big, and by the mid-2010s, most had either broken up or pivoted their sound away from metalcore. Moreover, because of the way those bands dressed, their flagrant embrace of trash-pop sonics, and the distinct lack of conventional metal elements in their sound (no guitar solos, mindlessly simplistic riffs, plasticky production that eschewed metal’s raw power) many metalheads viewed that cadre of metalcore as an abomination that was barely deserving of its “metal” membership. Maybe so, but fast-forward one decade later to the present day, and that wave of metalcore is now more integral to the cultural and artistic identity of metal than any Big Four thrash band.

You can thank (or blame) Bring Me The Horizon for that. The UK band originated as deathcore MySpace hypesters in the 2000s before they branched out into artier, more eclectic metalcore sounds on 2010’s There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven Let’s Keep It A Secret. By then, they were already Kerrang! cover stars, but their 2013 album Sempiternal launched them into stadiums and crowned them the scene’s biggest band. The record at once fully realized and transcended scene-era metalcore by applying a U2-adoring wide-angle lens to a synth-inflected take on the genre, recasting the juvenile “crabcore” of Attack Attack! in a more mature — and palatable — light. The choruses were huge, the bleating synths sprawled upward with a cathedral-like elegance, and the album was packaged with a cryptic, Radiohead-lite coolness that instantly dated the neon-pop sleaziness and unconvincing self-seriousness that pervaded BMTH’s swoopy-haired scene-core peers. Crucially, Sempiternal was devilishly catchy and shrewdly tapped-in to the post-Skrillex EDM boom that was permeating many other forms of popular rock music, anchoring the band’s sound in the broader pop zeitgeist.

It was both a creative landmark for metalcore and a successful crossover smash, and BMTH followed the money into 1975-gone-emo on 2015’s That’s The Spirit and 2019’s amo, seizing the audience in the middle of the Venn diagram between Paramore and the Arctic Monkeys’ fanbases. With amo, it appeared that BMTH had no interest (or careerist incentive) to return to the still-thriving metalcore landscape they reshaped with Sempiternal, but with 2020’s mini-album Post Human: Survival Horror, they brought back the screams and breakdowns — while carrying their cutting-edge pop instincts along with them.

Despite being a band of guys pushing 40, BMTH are remarkably fluent in the “post-genre” language of the TikTok era. On recent (beloved) singles like “Teardrops,” “LosT,” and “DArkSide,” they integrate glitchy hyperpop synths, pitched-up vocals, and emo choruses of the post-Lil Peep variety (more maudlin than snotty) alongside chugging metal riffs, bludgeoning breakdowns, and frontman Oli Sykes’ raspy screams. Some of their recent songs are more conventionally metalcore than that (2020’s “Dear Diary,” for instance), but overall, BMTH’s sound is as entrenched in the sounds of Gen-Z “alternative” pop music as it is metal. (Their touring bills emphasize this diversity, putting hyperpop singers and metalcore bands under the same arena roofs.)

Compared to Ghost, whose visuals are almost hyperbolically reverent to ’80s British metal — the iconography that your boomer uncle would probably associate with metal — Bring Me The Horizon look like a fussily preened boy band. Their recent cover art has the esoteric tackiness of 2000s-era skateboard stickers if they were drawn by someone who vaguely knows what corecore is. And their highly stylized Instagram profile is curated by someone who’s likely more familiar with Caroline Polachek than Carcass. Recently, the band began using a new logo that styles their band name in traditional black metal font. Even more so than Ghost’s cheekily scary visuals, the message of that iconography is a hearty wink to their fans — “haha get it? Cause we’re not black metal” — that’s effectively the same joke Phoebe Bridgers made when she printed T-shirts with her name in black metal font. BMTH are a metal band playing up the fact that they’re not really a metal band. But that hasn’t affected their ability to function as a certified metal band, one who co-headlined 2023’s Download Festival (the UK’s premier metal fest) alongside Metallica and Slipknot, and headlined over Deftones at Australia’s Good Things fest in 2022.

Of course, the nu-metal era was led by bands who giddily tipped over every one of metal’s sonic and aesthetic sacred cows, so Bring Me The Horizon’s anti-metal escapades aren’t exactly unfounded. However, whereas Korn and Limp Bizkit were influenced by the look and sound of pop/rap radio, Bring Me The Horizon aren’t merely dabbling in extra-metal affairs — they jumped the shark and fully fashioned themselves into the new Fall Out Boy with That’s The Spirit and amo. And now they’re shoveling those gloss-pop elements back into metal, while shepherding a flock of new stars (Bad Omens, Spiritbox, Sleep Token, and countless other wannabes) who correctly view them as the godfathers of metal’s new pop era.

Say what you will about Bring Me The Horizon’s ambitious pop-electro-punk-metal crossovers, at least they know how to write a coherent song (even if they don’t always exercise that knowledge). At least their music, at its best, possesses fist-clenching inertia and hair-raising dynamics and choruses that stick rather than drip, unavoidably yet unpleasantly, down the windshield of your musical memory like a glop of wet bird shit. Because that’s what it feels like to listen to Sleep Token, an unfathomably popular metal band who scan like an overly clinical hybrid of Bring Me The Horizon and Ghost and are one of the most pop-forward metal stars in the genre’s history.

Sleep Token’s music feels so meticulously pored-over and stylized that it’s almost entirely bereft of human feeling — and that’s kind of the point. The London-born band is a masked, “anonymous” metalcore group helmed by the mononymous singer-songwriter Vessel. Like Ghost, there’s an extensive pseudo-religious lore behind their lyrics that involves Vessel’s mysterious deity-lover-abuser Sleep, and their convoluted storyline — the musical version of a TikTok romantasy book — plays out across Sleep Token’s three-album arc. Also like Ghost, who write all of their “MESSAGE FROM THE CLERGY” social media posts in third-person and with ceremoniously rigid prose, Sleep Token post in the voice of a Skyrim NPC, alerting their fans that tickets to their “rituals” (see: shows) “have been swiftly depleted” and encouraging fans to “obtain” (see: buy) merch from their shop.

Sleep Token’s savvy pretension projects the illusion that they’re a lot darker, deeper, and cooler than they actually are. The beige pen-and-ink album cover for 2023’s Take Me Back To Eden — coincidentally the same color palette Avenged Sevenfold used for Life Is But A Dream… — could be mistaken for a post-metal album released on The Flenser label. Its wordless minimalism evokes a primeval authenticity, not unlike Bring Me The Horizon’s Sempiternal cover art, that conveys a sense of solemnity and tact — a decisive aesthetic shift away from the overprocessed digitalism of late-2010s metalcore. The presentation is perfectly suited for a Cult Of Luna or Amenra record, but Sleep Token employ it to make their mundane seem arcane. The arthouse elegance attempts to paint over the band’s clunky fusions of contemporary radio schlock and rudimentary djent-metal.

The songs on Take Me Back To Eden — undoubtedly the Sempiternal or White Pony of 2020s metal in terms of its seismic impact — sound tailor-made for the era of reaction videos, where a song’s merit derives more from its construction than its content. The average Sleep Token track is 75% stately pop-rock — often undergirded by stomp-clap drums or department store trap beats, and spritzed with a whiff of PG-13 sensuality — and 25% concussive metal breakdowns and ghoulish screams. Sleep Token deploy the metal passages like land mines, erupting without warning after several verses (upwards of six or seven minutes into their overwrought suites) of distinctly un-metal sounds. Some of their songs have absolutely zero metal in them, and are just saccharine, blindingly polished pop tracks that could easily be mistaken for Imagine Dragons, who Sleep Token have been frequently compared to. Vessel’s chesty vocal delivery sounds like a cross between Patrick Stump and James Blake. He has the type of technically proficient vocal range that would woo Simon Cowell in an American Idol audition, but none of the grainy character or husky timbre of your standard metal singer.

In “Chokehold,” one of several 2023 singles that caught fire online and turned Sleep Token into an overnight sensation, Vessel spends the first two minutes achily cantillating atop an elastic synth and a sparse trap beat. Suddenly, a wave of down-tuned guitars and bludgeoning drums come crashing in, only to recede completely and then return for one last go-around. The errant breakdowns serve as little more than reminders that what you’re listening to is in fact a metal song — “don’t worry, this isn’t actually pop,” their perfunctory inclusions seem to suggest. In the “crabcore” era, metalcore bands would jumpscare their fans with garish Euro-trance drops to essentially troll their listeners with brief detours into pop. Decades earlier, Type O Negative would flip the lights on in the middle of their sultry goth-metal romps to bask in a resplendently sunny psych-pop hook. Sleep Token’s music effectively does the same thing, except they’ve reversed the proportions, making metal the gag in an otherwise pop-forward feature.

Their biggest song, “The Summoning,” is a little moodier and djentier during its main motifs, but in its third act twist, the metalness swiftly drops away and Vessel croons over a Bruno Mars-inspired funk groove. In metalcore’s scene era, bands would have fun flipping bubblegum pop hits into scream-infested mosh jaunts on the infamous Punk Goes Pop compilations. Now, one of the biggest new bands in metal is unironically emulating that tier of normie pop in their own songs, and supporters view it as a bold genre exploration rather than a naked embrace of fundamentally corny, centrist, playlist pop. Sleep Token are primed for our cultural hypnosis toward artists who “transcend genre,” which in most cases (and especially Sleep Token’s) means the artist just stacks a bunch of dissimilar sounds on top of one another and passes it off as innovative eclecticism. Whether or not the genre-jumbling follows any creative or emotional logic is irrelevant. Songs like “The Summoning” just get props for stacking blocks on top of books like a toddler in a playpen.

The quality of their songwriting aside, what’s most striking about Sleep Token is that so much of their music feels like it only qualifies as metal on a technicality. The “is-it-or-isn’t-it-metal” meta-ness that Ghost and Bring Me The Horizon fiddle with is taken to its most extreme precipice, to where Sleep Token almost feel like they’re using metal aesthetics and intermittent extremity solely to give their shimmering pop an alternative veneer. It feels different than Sleep Token’s ultra-melodic predecessors in Linkin Park and Evanescence, who started off on major labels (Sleep Token only recently signed to RCA) and were really just dark hard-rock bands fulfilling the logical end-point of nu-metal: no-metal.

Those bands were never actually heavy enough to be coined metal proper, unlike Sleep Token, who started off making metalcore and came up through the metal underground before Take Me Back To Eden sent them skyward in early 2023. Within a year’s time, the band have gone from a mid-size club act to arena-filling headliners (their spring US tour is sold out), and their fanbase’s behavior on TikTok and Twitter now mirrors the cadence of a popstar stan army. That exponential spike wasn’t because there was suddenly 10x more appetite for djenty metalcore then there was the year before. “Chokehold” and “The Summoning” went viral because they were effectively pop songs, and the album that followed even moreso. Therefore, treating Sleep Token’s popstar rise like a win for metal feels like a misrepresentation of what makes their songs appealing.

Are Sleep Token metal’s new breakout act because of or in spite of their own metal-ness? The same question could be asked of Bad Omens, who are actually bigger than Sleep Token by several metrics (they’ve had three top 10 hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Airplay chart, including a #1, and boast 2 million more Spotify monthly listeners than Sleep Token). Moreover, their frontman/songwriter/producer Noah Sebastian feels fatigued by his band’s dizzying fame (which has manifested in an even more intensely parasocial stan army than Sleep Token’s) in a way few modern rock musicians ever get the opportunity to fret about. On the poster for this year’s Sick New World fest, Bad Omens are billed one peg above Sleep Token and one below Bring Me The Horizon; all three are above Lamb Of God and just one line beneath System Of A Down and Slipknot, which underscores just how close these pop-‘core bands are to overtaking the 2000s giants at marquee metal fests.

Whereas Bring Me The Horizon look to the screen-addled sounds of hyperpop, and Sleep Token draw from Imagine Dragons-y commercial-core, Bad Omens’ pop muse is the Weeknd. The band’s early, more straightforwardly metalcore material was brazenly indebted to Sempiternal-era BMTH, but their 2022 breakthrough The Death Of Peace Of Mind is where Sebastian adopted a breathy, palpitating R&B flow and overhauled their burly guitars with low-light synths and dramatically open, reverb-heavy production. The convergence of sleek, office-park R&B and SiriusXM-ready metalcore was first introduced in the 2010s by bands like Memphis May Fire and Issues, but Bad Omens reupholstered that tacky sound with a mentholy sexiness that’s one part gentrified industrial-metal and one part “Blinding Lights.”

Bad Omens’ sound is much less colorful than BMTH’s and a half-step more butt-rocky than Sleep Token’s, but it might even be more pop-oriented than either of theirs. The Death Of Peace Of Mind only boasts one or two actual metalcore songs. The others are all about as metal as Linkin Park’s 2010s catalog (so barely metal), and Sebastian has said his two biggest influences on the album — which he wrote and produced himself in his home studio, a genuinely impressive feat considering how huge it sounds — were the Weeknd and Billie Eilish. Bad Omens’ slightly less popular Canadian peers in Spiritbox also specialize in a blend of metalcore (albeit a much heavier, proggier breed) and sultry, synthy R&B. Their singer Courntey LaPlante has named Beyoncé, Pinkpantheress, and Remi Wolf as some of the biggest influences on her clean vocal delivery, and after nabbing a Grammy nom earlier this year, it seems highly probable that Spiritbox will lean further into that side of their sound on their next full-length, in aims of following in the profitable steps of Sleep Token and Bad Omens.

Deftones’ Chino Moreno has always been open about his love of R&B maestros like Sade and Prince, but his actual singing style has always sounded more like a mix between Billy Corgan, Mike Patton, and Morrissey. Sure, his singular delivery is highly unusual for a metal singer, but his nasally, slightly-off-key yowl still sounds at the very least like a rock vocalist. Meanwhile, if you isolated LaPlante’s soulful vocals on a Spiritbox song like “The Void,” or Sebastian’s fluttery falsetto on the Gold-certified “The Death Of Peace Of Mind,” they’d sound like they were vying for placements on SZA and Post Malone beats, respectively. Everything about their singing — the production, the delivery, the melodies — are fundamentally rooted in pop music. Nothing about the way those vocals sound is metal in any traditional sense.

Throughout all of metal history, a major metal band’s most popular song is typically either a ballad or one that leans more rock than metal — Slipknot’s “Duality,” Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” Deftones’ “Change (In The House Of Flies).” So what’s novel to this moment isn’t that Bad Omens’, Sleep Token’s, and Spiritbox’s most popular songs happen to be their catchiest ones. It’s that the totality of their sounds — not just their singles, but album cuts, too — are directly dialed into major-label pop, and they’re explicitly taking influence from some of the most mainstream, non-metal pop singers of the day. It would be like if Metallica were folding Michael Jackson parts into the “Black Album,” or if Slipknot mined influence from Maroon 5 on Vol. 3. The way Bad Omens, Sleep Token, and Spiritbox explicitly embrace A-list pop — and are not being exiled from metal because of it, or clowned on in the way Attack Attack! were for clumsily aping T-Pain Auto-Tune in 2008 — feels completely distinct to this post-poptimist era. A time when metal’s biggest bands are actually more reverent of non-metal than metal, and metal audiences are evidently cool with that.

And it’s not just these bands. Look at almost any popular metal or metal-adjacent act of the last decade, and their metalness is either used as a prop, a gimmick, or a counterweight to their otherwise non-metal sounds. Babymetal’s shockingly popular schtick hinges on the amusing contrast their music draws between kiddie-voiced J-pop and Dragonforce-y power-metal. A Day To Remember’s 1-to-1 mix of New Found Glory-indebted pop-punk and Hatebreed-y metalcore is still a reliable arena filler over a decade after their grip of pop-punk power-ballads took over Tumblr. Ice Nine Kills have discovered that if they retell entry-level horror films in the style of repulsively artificial metalcore, then they can sell out European tours and light up Lars Ulrich’s piggy-bank enough to open for Metallica. Motionless In White realized that if they start ripping off Breaking Benjamin instead of Marilyn Manson, but still dress like Marilyn Manson, then they can play stadiums. Our Last Night have converted their long-running YouTube channel (boasting 2.6m subs) of algorithmic chum like “Tate McRae – Greedy (Rock Cover)” into a legitimate touring enterprise, where they travel the country playing faceless metalcore covers of Top 40 hits to sold-out crowds.

None of these bands got popular by simply playing well-crafted metal music in the way Slayer, Pantera, or Lamb Of God did in their respective eras. Metal is instead part of these bands’ convoluted creative schemes, where it’s either used like a comedic foil (Babymetal), as a musical garment in a theatrical production (Ice Nine Kills), or as a sort of sonic Instagram filter (Our Last Night), where the vague idea of metal is used to market a hunk of normie-millennial cultural detritus as something alternative.

The thread connecting this entire new generation of bands — from Ghost and Bring Me The Horizon to Sleep Token and Our Last Night — is that they all use metal more like a signifier than an artistic framework. They’re not invigorated by playing the fastest beat, shredding the tastiest solo, chugging the gnarliest breakdown, or screaming the most fantastically violent lyrics to offend — either playfully or wholeheartedly — the docile sensibilities of mainstream culture. Instead, they’re enamored by the mainstream, and are adopting its cultural products to shape the way they sound, look, and transmit feeling through their art. Optimists see their methods as a necessary creative overhaul of a genre that’s already exhausted its own appeals. The heaviest, fastest, nastiest metal songs have already been written, and these bands are giving audiences something new to chew on. Cynics, even the ones who acknowledge that innovation is the lifeblood of all artistic mediums, and can recognize the many ways in which metal’s tropes have grown stale over the decades, are wary that these pop injections are a diluting, not renewing, force within a form of music that’s purportedly at odds with commercial orthodoxies.

If that’s your point of view, reluctantly or otherwise, then what does this all mean for metal’s musical, spiritual, and aesthetic future? Maybe it’s simply that this genre has had its time circle-pitting in stadiums, and once Metallica hit the retirement homes and Slipknot sell their likeness to venture capitalists, then metal will be reduced to the small club circuit, where it’ll solely exist as a true subculture. Or maybe this is just a particularly depressing stage in the endlessly spinning cultural cycle, and one day metal in its true (or at least true-er) form will circle back into vogue with enough engagement to fill stadiums again via riffs instead of pop hooks.

But for the foreseeable future, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. So maybe we should all just take a page out of Avenged Sevenfold’s book. If we binge on DMT, get weirdly into Camus in our early forties, and rock out on the blockchain, then some of this fucking bullshit might actually sound alright.

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