Songs of darkness, melodies of light


What’s the appeal of heavy metal music?

That’s a question barely worth the asking. Musical tastes are subjective. You might as well ask the same of country, or rap, or folk, or pop, or any genre you like. It comes down to personal taste. But let’s entertain it anyway.

Fans of metal will often bring up the complexity of the music, its dual roots in classical and blues music, its intense, complex composition, and a host of other qualifiers. Metal is beautiful music.

However, in the last few decades, much of the heavy metal world has been a race to the extremes of volume, heaviness, speed, aggression or compositional complexity. The melodic beauty has become less obvious to the average listener. So much of the best metal from the ’90s and 2000s was not very accessible to the casual metal fan.

But metal’s emphasis on catchy melody has come back with a vengeance. Since the late 2000s, there has been a surge of metal bands that emphasize older ways of metal thinking. These bands have stronger, more obvious ties to the origins of heavy metal – artists like Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Coven and Led Zeppelin.

The sounds of the ’70s have returned, and not in a small way.

Alright, to be fair, music like this has always been made. The stoner metal scene of the ’90s, which featured bands like Kyuss and Sleep, was very much aligned with a more melodic school of metal thinking. Doom metal acts — bands that emphasized the slow, heavy aspects of Black Sabbath — like Cathedral maintained the melody in their heaviness. Classic bands like Iron Maiden and Pentagram also released material during this period.

Bands like Witchcraft and The Sword, though, decided that the territory between metal, psychedelic music and bluesy rock deserved revisiting. Witchcraft, from Sweden, built their credibility over four albums and several spots on major European metal festivals. Stateside, Texas natives The Sword got a huge break when one of their tracks was included in the video game “Guitar Hero 2,” which sold over three million copies.

Since, the scene has been growing. More bands have taken a long, hard look at the blues, rock and psychedelia of bygone years and made it metal. From England, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats took Blue Cheer’s guitar fuzz and cranked it to eleven. Recently disbanded Dutch band The Devil’s Blood fused psychedelic music with metal akin to Coven and, oddly, Thin Lizzy’s instrumental runs. Jess and the Ancient Ones could be the metal cousins of Jefferson Airplane, sharing a love for synthesizers and soaring female vocals.

It’s an underground scene, for the most part, but it’s got the potential for big appeal, and people are starting to take notice. Swedish band Ghost B.C., formerly and informally just Ghost, signed a deal with Universal Records last year for a rumored $750,000; their sophomore album, “Infestissumam,” hit 28th on Billboard’s top 200 list.

Ghost oozes theatrics and the sort of mystery that has been absent from most metal since Kiss went unmasked. Their singer dresses as a skull-faced pope named Papa Emeritus II, and the rest of the band wear black robes and masks and refer to themselves as nameless ghouls. In interviews, the band has joked about much of their money going into bribes to keep their real names secret. Though their theatrical flair helped them land that big Universal contract, their melodies and hooks are undeniable.

Melody has returned to metal in a big way. This wave of bluesy, old-school metal is not just for angry kids in black T-shirts. It’s for people who wish Blue Oyster Cult, Uriah Heep or Deep Purple were still putting out tracks with vim and vigor. It’s for people who remember just how hard Blue Cheer’s cover of “Summertime Blues” rocks. It’s for the people who want skilled guitar players with tasteful restraint. It’s for people who know who Roky Erickson is. It’s inter-generational, international and excellent. It’s for you.

Anyone who wants to investigate this trend for themselves should pick up Witchcraft’s “Legend,” The Devil’s Blood’s “The Time of No Time Evermore,” Ghost B.C.’s “Opus Eponymous” or The Sword’s “Warp Riders.” Anyone who doesn’t should reconsider their position.