Even though metal still loves to hail itself as an underground genre that can’t be understood by outsiders, your average in-the-know music fan in 2018 (basically, anyone who’s reading this on Noisey) understands the simple baked-in differences between types of headbangers. Lamb of God fan? Sweaty cinderblock of a person in camo cut-offs with a black belt in mosh karate. Emperor fan? Ebony-drenched misanthrope with a wry sense of humor and a nuanced concept of Satan. High On Fire fan? Cackling mop.
But ask even the most scene-entrenched metalhead who’s going to see Seether in 2018, and they’ll be stumped. At best, you’ll get surprise: Are they still touring? Wow. Good for them, I guess.
As underground metal champions like Slayer and Behemoth rise in acclaim and finally get to headline arenas, bands who play the groovy, listenable hard rock of the late 90s and early 2000s have formed their own self-sustaining underground. But while these bands continue to utilize the momentum they gained during that turn-of-the-century heyday, their longevity is based on the same principles as that of ear-blisterers as Cannibal Corpse—non-stop touring, fearsome dedication to their fans, and down-to-earth musicianship.
Turn-of-the-century hard rock’s origin story is a strange confluence of outside factors. Around the mid-to-late 90s, headbangers who were exhausted by how twangy and whiny latter-day grunge was becoming were looking for something heavier…but they weren’t ready to return to heavy metal, a loaded genre which at that point had split into irrelevant glam and ultra-anatomical death metal (black metal was still like Ethiopian food then—you’d read an article about it, but no one actually listened to it). Rap metal was coming into existence, but felt too acerbic for the flannel-clad rockers who preferred the Vinnie Paul side of Pantera.
But bands like Godsmack, Stone Temple Pilots, and Creed laid soulful vocals over big, swingin’ riffs that satisfied rockers without alienating them. Thus, this particular strain of post-grunge, aggro hard rock emerged as a genre that typical hetero chuds could punch the steering wheel to without feeling like a total caveman.
But turn-of-the-century rock’s cozy nook in the middle ground was also its doom. As the new millennium was kickstarted by the destruction of the World Trade Center (and, it should be noted, the release of the first good Slayer record in years), fans realized they didn’t want to just enjoy safe music that took no sides. Meanwhile, younger listeners raised on 90s hard rock wanted tougher shit, and moved onto melodic-yet-brutal metalcore acts like Killswitch Engage and Unearth, which became gateway drugs to genre-specific acts like Iron Maiden and Carcass. Hard rock was left in the dust.
Plenty of metalheads might respond with, “Good riddance,” and I get that. Fans of extreme metal didn’t get the time of day back in that era; major publications that now obsess over Ghost wanted nothing to do with metal when there was Adema to write about. But, while plenty of hard rock bands threw in the towel when their spotlight went out, a few did what extreme metal bands have done for ages: worked their asses off.
“I’ve been in this band for 15 years, and it’s been album, tour, album, tour,” says John Humphrey, drummer of Seether. Since forming in South Africa in 1999, Seether has churned out seven studio albums featuring countless radio hits, perhaps their most recognizable being “Remedy” from 2005’s Karma and Effect. While the radio’s receptiveness to their grunge-meets-groove metal sound has aided them, though, Humphrey insists the band’s road-dog mentality is what kept them alive. “We’ve been very fortunate with radio support, but our core audience was built by doing what we do today: going overseas, winning fans over live. A lot of our peers have taken hiatuses, where they’ve taken time off, which might be why they’ve called it quits.”
Musically, Seether are certainly easier to swallow than, say, Origin, but their music still goes hard in the paint; this year’s Poison The Parish is loaded with bangers that could easily play over the PA at a major European metal festival like Wacken. For Humphrey, remaining loud and angry is important—but it’s only one side of the coin. “The dark side, and the emotional side that tends to be Shaun’s lyrics—people connect with that,” he says. “Because that’s human nature. But there’s a fun side to things, too. We refuse to be one-sided. We try to carry all aspects of human history and emotion.
Though romantic warrior-poetry is this kind of hard rock’s bread and butter, plenty of the era’s bands went darker, leaning more towards the haunted doll eeriness of Coal Chamber or the bombastic monster rock of my lord and savior Rob Zombie. And while those artists may not occupy the same space as an act like Seether, they soldier onward, fueled by the old ringmaster’s mantra: The show must go on.
“I think some people just lose drive,” Wednesday 13 tells me when I call him. As the former frontman of Slipknot side project Murderdolls, 13 has become a genre staple, playing overdriven horror rock to weirdos in greasepaint for almost 20 years. “People don’t see it, but [this business] is a lot of work. It’s a lot of not seeing your family. Maybe it was never in their soul, to do it for the rest of their lives. But for me, this is all I know, this is all I’m really good at. And while I know it’s unique, it’s what keeps me alive.”
This single-minded sense of purpose has sent 13 all over the world, playing for audiences in countries like Australia and Russia—and if you don’t know what an average US Wednesday 13 audience looks like, you’ve got to wonder what the hell a Moscow Wednesday 13 audience looks like. “I had the same question too, before our first show!” he says with a laugh. “I’m an 80s kid, growing up on Red Dawn and Rambo—I didn’t even know if our record was out there! But we came out that first show, and we had kids in the front row singing along, girls crying. It was so cool.”
While the continued determination of acts like Seether and Wednesday 13 are admirable, when the day is over, these bands made their name back in the day, and have just kept churning away—but what about young acts within post-90s hard rock? Who is out there trying to keep the hard rock torch lit in 2018, just for the satisfaction of doing so?
“We’ve always liked music that’s powerful and beautiful,” says Ben Flanagan, frontman and bassist of San Francisco’s Black Map. Formed in 2013, the band plays a form of emotional hard rock with progressive elements that fans will immediately recognize for its kinship with early-Aughts acts like Deftones and Chevelle. “And over the course of a record, or an EP, we don’t want to sound like one thing. It bores us. There was never a conversation, and there still hasn’t been, about what we should sound like, or following any trend.”
For Flanagan, the turn-of-the-century hard rock sound is simply what satisfies him—“The heavy always felt good to us”—but real talk, we’re all music fans here: does it ever feel weird playing new hard rock in 2018? Does Black Map ever get shit for playing a seemingly safe genre in an unsafe time?
Flanagan chuckles. “If they’ve said that, they haven’t said it to my face. I wouldn’t respond well to that. If you don’t like our band, there’s plenty of other music to listen to.”
This is perhaps the most endearing aspect of the hard rock bands who refuse to give up in 2018: they really love it. There’s no rock-star bluster, but instead a constant self-awareness of how lucky they are to get to make this sort of music for people. Maybe it’s no longer the most popular shit out there, but to them, this level of chugging not-quite-metal remains as exciting as ever, and while other “classic” hard rockers have lost sight of that (and suffered—let’s never forget Orgy’s ultra-thirsty crowdfunding disaster), these lifers seem happy to be here. They’ll play on whatever stage you send them to.
“We rehearse at a hole-in-the-wall space in Nashville,” says Seether’s John Humphrey. “On the road, I’m fortunate, I have a crew. But there, I set up my own drums in the practice room, and I play my shit. Same way I did when I was 14.”
Chris Krovatin is missing his K-Rock days on Instagram .