Metal Rules

Tom Bryant considers the raw power of British metal, uncovering a staunchly independent world.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 26 Jun 2012
  • min read
On 10 June this year, a band comfortably into their 60s strode out to face one of the summer’s biggest British festival crowds. With crinkled faces and thinning hair, they played songs from a back catalogue that stretches back over 40 years. Menacing, powerful and joyous, they were songs that both shaped a genre and still inspire it today.

Fans who loved them the first time round rubbed shoulders with those born nearly a quarter of a century after the band formed. Because, when Black Sabbath headlined on Sunday night at Download Festival, the cheers were not only for them but for a genre that remains an enduring success story in British music: metal.

Few outside the confines of Download’s Donnington Park site will care. Although British metal might have been thriving from 1970 until today, the mainstream barely gives it a glance. ‘Metal’s a dirty word,’ says Andy Copping, Download’s promoter and the man who put Black Sabbath at the top of its bill. ‘Download will sell 100,000 tickets this year. Only Glastonbury is bigger than us in the UK. But the mainstream media just don’t recognise us. If you’re not Lady Gaga or Coldplay, they’re not fucking interested.’ But that’s exactly how a lot of metal fans like it.

When Black Sabbath released their self titled debut in 1970 it was almost universally panned, yet it went to number eight in the album charts. It was the first chapter of a repetitive tale for the genre: critics hated its juddering power and direct riffs; fans adored it. ‘It’s working class music for working class fans,’ Copping says. ‘Once metal bands get fans, those fans stick with them through thick and thin.’

So it was with Sabbath. Just four months after their debut came the classic album Paranoid, named after the song that remains their sole Top 10 hit single. And with that, they kicked off another defining truism of British metal; it’s never been a genre which has required hit singles. Alongside Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and British metal blazed its trail on long players. That Deep Purple’s guitar shop staple Smoke On the Water charted outside the UK’s Top 20 says much.

‘We’re not reliant on hit singles and we never have been. I’m grateful for that,’ says Craig Jennings, head of Raw Power Management, which currently looks after the new wave of Britain’s brightest metal acts like Bullet for My Valentine and Bring Me the Horizon. ‘We don’t rely on big chart hits. If we have an act on the A-List at Radio One for weeks, we don’t tend to see those records going into the Top 10. But what it does do is build the brand of the band, which creates a lifestyle around them. That’s what bands need to last.’

Those that followed in Sabbath’s footsteps would argue the same. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, and the rest of the new wave of British heavy metal were all ignored as punk and pop dominated late 70s and early 80s cultural history, yet their fans built their lives around them. It means that Iron Maiden are still here today, still playing stadiums, and still touring in their own jet. Just last month, their 1982 album The Number of the Beast was voted the best British album of the last 60 years in an HMV poll, beating The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Queen. Meanwhile, Def Leppard headlined Download in 2011 and 2009 with Whitesnake also high up the bill. Almost none of their punk or pop peers can do similar. And if they can, they’re certainly not still playing to young crowds. Metal’s heritage acts are.

‘That’s definitely something we’ve seen,’ says Copping. ‘I’ll see a kid in a Slipknot shirt going to watch Def Leppard. By the same token, I’ve seen people in ZZ Top shirts watching Bullet For My Valentine.’ It’s a sign that metal crosses generations. The dating process that affects all music seems to have been kinder on metal, with modern bands still influenced by their aged predecessors.

‘You can trace the lineage from Black Sabbath and on from there,’ says Copping. ‘Speak to any contemporary act, bands like Bullet For My Valentine, and they’ll still cite Black Sabbath as an influence.’

Someone ideally placed to judge this generational leap is the singer with fast rising British metallers Rise To Remain. Austin Dickinson is the son of Iron Maiden frontman Bruce and, while his band is successful in its own right, he acknowledges it was his father who introduced him to metal.

‘Metal is inter-generational,’ he says. ‘I think that’s down to the passing down of records from father to son. It’s down to fathers playing music in the car. And it’s infectious, there’s no doubt about that – once you get the bite, it can last for 50 years. And it’s a damn good bite to get.’

Today’s most successful new British metal band, Bullet For My Valentine, feel similarly that metal commands a loyalty almost to the exclusion of all else. ‘I was a hotshot sports player – I played rugby for the county and basketball for Wales,’ their singer Matt Tuck has said. ‘Then metal came along. I fell in love with it and dedicated everything to it. I sacrificed my school work, jobs and everything for it, regardless of the consequences.’

A reason for this loyalty is that metal has always been outsider music. Shunned by the mainstream, its devotees stick together, creating rabid support for bands. It’s why Bullet For My Valentine headlined Brixton Academy within a year of releasing their debut, and why they’re now comfortably an arena act.

Their manager, Craig Jennings, is instrumental in the British metal scene, running a wildly successful roster of established and up and coming acts alongside his own Sony-backed metal label. He understands the appeal of metal as outsiders’ music. ‘Kids chose this as a lifestyle early on and they never go away,’ he says. ‘People might assume shows like The X Factor damage alternative music but I think it solidifies people as outsiders.’

Copping agrees. ‘It really is a lifestyle,’ he says. ‘Metal fans are perceived as off-centre from the norm; it means they unite. Heavy metal is like a huge religious sect: “we know what we want so leave us alone”.’

It’s why metal can exist without compromising its sound in search of a broader demographic. One reason British metal has succeeded for so long is simply that it has never sold out. ‘Completely,’ agrees Dickinson. ‘And that integrity is embodied almost tenfold in the fans.’

The recent success of two British bands Enter Shikari and Young Guns goes some way to proving how important the link is between metal and its fans. Though neither would claim to be a metal act, they both tour within metal circles. In January, Enter Shikari’s furious blend of politics, hardcore punk and dance landed them a number four album spot, jostling for space with Adele and Coldplay. The more classic rock of Young Guns’ Bones went Top 20 in February. Both bands see it as vital that they interact with their fans, whether online or in person.

‘There is a feeling that the music industry is falling apart,’ says Gus Woods, Young Guns’ singer. ‘The process has opened new methods for bands to get their music out. A lot of that relies on you interacting with your audience more directly. If you’re not willing to play that game, you’re not as likely to progress.’

But there’s more to it than just that. Metal and its offshoots have always had a reputation for flamboyant live shows. The days of Ozzy Osbourne biting heads from bats may be gone, but the legacy remains. Metal shows are big shows. Where once that meant high concepts, such as Iron Maiden’s giant mechanical stage puppet Eddie, these days budget constraints have increased the emphasis on performance. There are few better bands at delivering that than Enter Shikari, whose shows are a constant whirl of noise, energy, colour and movement.

‘Playing live is everything really,’ says Rou Reynolds, Enter Shikari’s frontman. ‘Not playing live means your songs get lost in the musical abyss that is the internet. Everyone can release music now but if you can’t do it live, you won’t get anywhere.’ Reynolds is talking from America, where his band are on a successful headline tour. The difficulties that have struck, say, indie bands in cracking America have not hit British metal acts as hard.

‘We’ve had a lot of success with Bullet For My Valentine all around the world, and we’re starting to have it with Bring Me The Horizon,’ says Craig Jennings. ‘Metal is really an international language, it’s a big export.’

Asking Alexandria are a case in point. The British four piece made an early decision to crack America and did so by, according to singer Danny Worsnop, ‘lying and telling people we were a really big band back home.’

Guitarist Ben Bruce has more practical advice: ‘We were relentless, we toured constantly,’ he says. ‘Most British bands hit the US maybe once a year, and then go home. We stayed in the States for months at a time, playing to anyone who would listen.’
Their second album, 2011’s Reckless and Relentless, went to number nine in the Billboard chart, selling an impressive 31,449 copies on its first week of release there, leading to major chat-show appearances. Along with Rise To Remain, Sheffield’s While She Sleeps, and Brighton’s Architects, they’re ones to watch.

There is one note of caution to be sounded, though. Sonisphere, Download’s chief UK metal festival rival, cancelled this year due to lack of sales. Roadrunner, the world’s biggest dedicated metal label, recently closed all its offices outside America, including its UK branch. Clearly British metal is not immune from the forces of recession.

Those setbacks aside, though, British metal still sells out venues, sells merchandise and sells albums much as it has done since Sabbath in the 70s. And, proudly, it still does so away from the mainstream. Regenerating, evolving and renewing, it’s nevertheless one of the few genres in touch with its roots. For in every Bullet For My Valentine riff remain the seeds first sown by Sabbath, Maiden, Purple and Zeppelin. Perhaps that’s why it has lasted so long, and why it shows few signs of quieting down. It’s as Raw Power’s Craig Jennings says: ‘Metal is the one constant that’s always there.’