Heavy-metal singer Chris Barnes didn’t know what people would think of Amerika the Brutal, an antiwar song he wrote after his cousin was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
He heard complaints — but also received supportive e-mails from American troops in the war zone.
“It kind of sent a shiver up my spine because those are the guys I didn’t want to offend by sounding antiwar,” said Barnes, vocalist for the death-metal band Six Feet Under.
Other metal bands are finding similar inspiration.
Lamb of God’s albums criticize U.S. foreign policy. Cattle Decapitation are ardent vegetarians who use explicit album covers and songs such as Veal and the Cult of Torture to condemn the meat industry. Serj Tankian of System of a Down is co-founder of a nonprofit organization that works on social issues.
More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.
Cattle Decapitation vocalist Travis Ryan said his San Diego band’s mix of charging guitars and an animal-rights message is drawing a diverse crowd that includes activists as well as traditional metal fans. “We’ve always had a lot of crazy crossover going on,” he said before a recent show. “It’s a pretty diverse crowd we have. I’ve never known what to make of it.”
Twenty artists recently displayed art inspired by the band’s last album, Humanure, in an online exhibit. Proceeds from sales of the art will be donated to animal-rights causes.
Metal bands are also branching out into literature and mythology. Mastodon, which is headlining a summer tour with metal stalwart Slayer, patterned the concept album Leviathan around the story of Moby Dick. Death-metal band Nile bases its songs and image around Egyptian mythology and iconography.
“Metal is expanding and evolving and becoming more diverse,” said Canadian anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn, who directed Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, released on DVD this summer. “It’s at a much more vibrant state than it was even five or 10 years ago.”
Dunn is working on a sequel to the film with the working title Global Metal that will trace the popularity of metal overseas, especially in developing countries such as Brazil, Columbia and Indonesia. “It’s becoming global and it’s becoming a tool for social and political commentary,” Dunn said. “It takes on a greater meaning in countries where people have had to struggle to survive. It takes on a much stronger political tone.”
Metal artists “have responded to the culture and politics of the day,” said Donna Gaines, a sociologist and author of Teenage Wasteland, a study of working class New Jersey metalheads.
Metal music in the 1980s was often homophobic and “very white,” she said, but current bands tend to be socially conscious and suspicious of political power. There are also more women in the audience — and fronting the bands.
“This is another generation rising,” Gaines said.
Heavy metal has always touched on social and political issues. Metal grandfathers Black Sabbath criticized the Vietnam War in songs such as War Pigs and Children of the Grave. Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills was an angry denunciation of the displacement of Native Americans. But much of the criticism was blunted by dark imagery that panicked parents and led to the now ubiquitous “Parental Advisory” labels. Metal’s punk brethren were seen as having a more learned world view. CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.