To Hell And Back

In Defense of Heavy Metal Gimmicks

We wrestle with the meaning of the word in a post-Neckbeard Deathcamp world, and share new tunes from Ultha, Devil Master, Smoulder, Black Viper, and more.

by Kim Kelly
21 September 2018, 8:30am

Photo courtesy of Ultha

To Hell And Back is a weekly column in which Noisey metal editor and lifelong hesher Kim Kelly explores the extreme metal underground and recommends her latest faves.

One of the primary criticisms I’ve seen of anti-fascist black metal outfit Neckbeard Deathcamp (who I profiled earlier this week) is that their overtly militant, meme-steeped, Nazi-decimating aesthetic is nothing more than a gimmick. I’d like to think the conversations I had with the band went a long way towards debunking that particular critique, but the whole situation has got me thinking about the word “gimmick,” insofar as it relates to heavy metal as a whole.

The most commonly accepted definition of the word “gimmick” is “a trick or device used to attract business or attention.” Operating under that principle, there’s quite a hefty percentage of metal bands who fall into that category. I don’t necessarily mean obvious touchstones like GWAR, Ghost, Alestorm, Babymetal, Macabre, or (sigh) Mac Sabbath, who are loud and proud and open about their gimmickry. Slightly more esoteric entitles like A Forest of Stars, The County Medical Examiners, Brujeria, Church of Misery, and Summoning are just as guilty. All of these bands stick to very specific themes, whether that’s slavish devotion to a singular lyrical theme (like serial killers or Tolkien worship), dress up like monsters or Victorian gentlemen, or insist that they’re literal pirates or Antarctic aliens.

Their signature attention-grabbing mechanisms are a primary source of their power (or at least, their appeal), and that’s fine – especially if, in the case of gratuitously costumed bands like Ghoul, Midnight, and Savage Master, their songwriting genuinely backs up the bloodstained pageantry. The main issue, then, is what we’re left with when faced with a “gimmick” band whose style far outweighs their musical substance.

Furthermore, if we’re shouting down bands for using specific strategies and theatrical devices to garner attention, how does the rest of the metal universe fit in? What are corpsepaint, and gauntlets, and tight black leather, and stage blood, if not nonverbal cries of “look at us!”? What were Glen Benton’s inverted cross, or Alice Cooper’s streaked eyeliner, or Mike Muir’s bandana, if not requests for attention? Is a gimmick still a gimmick if it’s been accepted as a normal part of the culture? When does a gimmick become a valid part of an artist’s creative identity? Who is the arbiter of that decision? Or is it all just marketing?

I don’t have the answers there, but I do think it’s worth pondering. Metal culture has a tendency to rear back and leash out at anything that it perceives to be a threat, and any band that challenges the status quo in some way is always going to get punters riled up. Given the inherent ridiculousness and pageantry that helps to define our beloved genre, though, I think our own definition of “gimmick” needs a few tweaks.

And, look, I’m not out here pretending that overtly gimmicky metal bands don’t irk me. They do! A lot! And if Neckbeard Deathcamp were coming from a different place – if they were another ultra-Satanic black metal band, or came onstage in Edwardian evening wear, or were a… whatever Alex Jones Prison Planet is – I’d probably dismiss them outright, because there are only so many hours in a day and there is very little logical value in intentionally availing yourself of something that you know will irritate you. The fact that their particular method of attracting attention – militant leftist messaging – strikes a chord with me means that of course I’m going to give them a little extra leeway, the same way horror fans embrace slasheriffic bands like Acid Witch and fantasy types love Hobbit-inspired folk metal.

Some fans love hate-watching or hate-listening (or, perhaps in a meta moment given that this is my column, hate-reading) content that challenges their perceptions of their chosen genre, and that adds another, more complex layer to these bands’ appeal. Metalheads love complaining about metal bands, especially when an artist serves up an opportunity for mockery or derision on a silver platter. It’s almost too easy to use a band’s perceived gimmick status to discredit them outright; sometimes that’s wholly deserved, but it also opens up the possibility that bands with an exceptionally vibrant creative streak, who are actually worth a damn will, end up being punished for thinking outside the black box.

Lord knows I’ve done it (and will almost certainly do it again, because I get too many emails and am generally no fun anyway) but I’m going to try to be a little more open-minded going forward. One person’s “gimmick” is another person’s life’s work, after all.

None of the bands I’m spotlighting this week fall into the “gimmick” category (I think?) but they’re all great, so go check ‘em out. (I've written about Infernal Coil in this space before, but their new album just dropped and you absolutely need to hear it).

Ultha

As a European band that takes a great deal of influence from American black metal traditions (specifically in the malevolently atmospheric vein of bands like Ash Borer and Yellow Eyes), Ultha flips the script on what fans have come to expect from the genre, and the end result is a treat. Taken off the German quintet's upcoming album, The Inextricable Wandering, "Cyanide Lips" is an urgent, ominous epic, and an excellent representation of the band's overall mien.

MooM

MooM serve up furious feminist metalpunk from the heart of Tel-Aviv. Their third EP (creatively titled Third EP) is an addictive blast of powerviolence that weds grinding hardcore punk with a sludgy edge, and songs like the sexual harassment revenge fantasy "Hands Off" mark exactly where they stand.

Smoulder

I've been keeping an eye on this Canadian trad doom troupe since they formed back in 2013, and now they've finally given me something to wrap my ears around. Their debut demo,
The Sword Woman, is a heady dose of epic traditional doom – the aural equivalent to a worn-in denim jacket plastered in Candlemass patches – elevated further by vocalist (and Noisey contributor) Sarah Kitteringham's authoritative wail.

Devil Master

I've been obsessing over these Philadelphia horror metalpunks for awhile now, and their recent signing to Relapse Records is a big step forward for a band I truly believe is one of modern extreme metal's best. Their snappy, spooky, deathrock-tinged black/thrash goes straight for the jugular, and answers the age-old question of what would happen if Mortuary Drape met Judas Priest in a crusty tomb. They're slated to release their debut full-length in 2019, and I cannot fucking wait.

Black Viper

I'm very picky when it comes to speed/trad heavy metal, but Black Viper's over-the-top album cover piqued my interest when I chanced upon them on Bandcamp, and I'm delighted that I ended up pressing play. These Norwegian heshers share members with various other Kolbotn wrecking crews (Nekromantheon, Deathhammer, Obliteration, Condor) and their allegiance to the old school is made apparent on their searing full-length debut, Hellions of Fire.

An Autumn for Crippled Children

In a lot of ways, AAFCC is a quintessential post-black metal band. The Dutch outfit have just released their seventh album, The Light of September, and it's a melancholy ride through valleys of ultra-distorted shoegaze and post-punk, with craggy black metal elements poking through via the vocals. At this point, they sound like a more miserable, still-underground Deafheaven.

Kim Kelly is Noisey's heavy metal editor; follow her on Twitter for more recommendations!

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.