Music by VICE

Let's Talk About the 2017 Metal Performance Grammy Noms

For better or for worse, the Grammys are finally paying attention to heavy metal.

by Kim Kelly
Dec 6 2016, 5:13pm

Photo by Ryan J. Lane via Getty Images

The 2017 Grammy nominations are out, and while everyone else on the Music Internet is spending their day fiercely debating the merits of Lil Yachty and declaring their undying allegiance to Beyoncé' before she destroys us all, I have some THOUGHTS about the oft-overlooked Metal Performance category. This year's showings are surprisingly less bullshit than usual, but fear not, there's still plenty to bitch about—and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, some good news.

By now, complaining about the Grammys is as integral a part of metal culture as denim, leather, and being extremely judgmental about guitar tone. The annual ceremony is a chance to partake in one of metal's own most sacred rituals: reveling in our own superior taste. Metalheads generally don't expect much from the Grammys beyond a few fun moments of collective eye-rolls and half-hearted outrage over just how bad the picks are each year; as the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, Noted Metal Appreciator, mused to me earlier today, "Asking the Grammys to be good is like asking a cat to do tricks: you can spend your energy that way if you want, but it's a cat."

He's not wrong. Traditionally, the Grammys have always sucked at metal. It's a precedent that's been set in stone since the very first time the Academy attempted to bestow the award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental back in 1989. By snubbing Metallica's then-popular (and now iconic) ...And Justice for All album in favor of British flute-noodlers Jethro Tull, the Academy made it quite clear just how out of touch they were with heavy metal and hard rock in general (AC/DC got ignored, too). If that had been a one-off misstep, or one of a few misguided choices sprinkled over the years, they'd be deserving of more slack—after all, the Grammys are the most mainstream of all possible mainstream music events—but, no. They do this every year, and have done since 1988—coincidentally, the year I was born, so they've had almost 29 chances to figure this shit out, and have still failed spectacularly almost every time.

Best Rock Album:
Blink-182 -  California
Cage the Elephant -  Tell Me I'm Pretty
Gojira -  Magma
Panic! at the Disco -  Death of a Bachelor
Weezer -  Weezer

The 2015 edition fell during my first year working for Noisey, and guess who won? Not Mastodon, an innovative, wildly popular metal-turned-prog band who actually deserved it. No, fucking Tenacious D, a literal joke band, nabbed the honors for a cover song that was taken from a posthumous compilation dedicated to the late (and much-loved) Ronnie James Dio. As I fumed then, it was nice to see Dio honored, albeit in an absurdly roundabout way, but was otherwise a slap in the face, given the astonishing number of quality actual heavy metal albums (to say nothing of the more extreme subgenres) that came out that year (and every year). 

As one might expect, people were pissed. Apparently the outcry over that particular gaffe had an impact, though—I heard through the grapevine that the Academy had started actively seeking out input on heavy metal from industry experts, and two years later, it seems that that gambit has actually paid off.  We've still got the usual nu-metal last gasp in Korn and obligatory 80s thrash fossil in Megadeth (who admittedly released their most compelling album in years in 2016), but the other three 2017 Metal Performance nominees are actually... pretty cool.

Best Metal Performance
Baroness - "Shock Me"
Gojira - "Silvera" 
Korn - "Rotting In Vain" 
Megadeth - "Dystopia"
Periphery - "The Price Is Wrong"

Gojira's Magma racked in two nominations, including a nod for Best Rock Album. They've long been immensely popular—first in their native France, then across the USA and the rest of the globe—but this latest album has elevated them to a new level. The reasoning behind the Metal Performance nomination is obvious—despite the cleaner melodic touches they often employ, the music is undeniably heavy, based on pummeling, death metal-adjacent riffs and a truly massive atmosphere.

Magma is a far cry from the band's crushing breakthrough debut, Terra Incognita—a gloomy, groovy technical death metal offering that owed a heavy debt to Morbid Angel's swampy riffs and Death's cerebral later albums—but still lightyears heavier than anything we've seen in that category to date. To call it a mere "Rock Album" does the music itself a bit of a disservice, but is accurate enough as a testament to the band's mighty crossover appeal. Gojira is already a hugely poplar metal band; perhaps this Grammy twofer is the beginning of their career as a hugely popular rock band. After all, Metallica started off in the metal category, too.

It warmed my heart to see Baroness named on that list, both personally (they're some of the most wonderful humans in the world) and as a fan of forward-thinking heavy music. They've also weathered the kinds of storms that would've utterly broken most bands, and still consistently come out swinging—most recently with Purple, the most critically- and commercially-successful work of their 13-year career. Love them or hate them, one cannot deny that Baroness possess one of the most crucial (and up until now, sorely lacking on the Grammy stage) qualities a hard rock band can have: credibility.

Even though they've sold a whole bunch of records, transitioned from primal, knotty sludge into boundary-smashing progressive rock, and toured with Metallica, founder John Baizely and his bandmates have never forgotten their crusty, sweaty DIY roots—and neither have the fans and friends who've been with them since day one. It's especially satisfying to see their nomination fall on the same year as their mentors in Metallica (who are up for Best Rock Song) since Baroness' career trajectory has long seemed to mirror that of the Bay Area giants. 

All three of these nominees share a certain commonality in style, aesthetic, and approach. The biggest takeaway here is that technical, progressive metal has become the most dominant style, at least inasmuch as we're discussing metal in the mainstream. This will come as no surprise to anyone who's watched the rise of djent and progressive metal in general, but sets an interesting new precedent for an awards category that's long been the playground of has-beens, legacy acts, and outright garbage. No disrespect at all to recent-ish winners Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest, but I firmly believe that awards like the Grammys should spend their energy supporting and highlighting exciting new artists instead of bestowing more kudos on legends who are already knee-deep in laurels.Ghost's 2016 win for "Cirice" was a hint that a sea change may be coming, and 2017's list clinches it. For better or for worse, the Grammys are finally paying attention to heavy metal.

The underground will continue doing what it does, and remain generally (and blessedly) unnoticed by the kind of people who genuinely care about the Grammys, the radio, or what Billboard Magazine has to say about anything. However, now we have proof that, once in a great while, a band like Baroness or Gojira or Periphery will bubble up and create too big of a buzz for industry heads to ignore. Metal's Grammy representatives have finally become more relevant, and if the current trend continues, it seems like more and more of those bands will be sporting Rush backpatches.

That even a complex, aggressive djent band like the fifth nominee, Periphery (who were originally heavily influenced by Swedish tech death giants Meshuggah, retain the use of harsh barked vocals, and who regularly tour with death metal bands) has achieved undeniable mainstream success speaks volumes about the way the perceptions about the genre have changed. As far as the Grammys are concerned, what was once the (perceived) provenance of drunken heshers with long greasy hair and crass jokesters has now been overtaken by clean-cut music theory obsessives who haul around seven-string guitars and really like jazz. 

So after all that—after 80s metal's sleaze and success, the 90s' extreme explorations, the 2000s' experimentation—it looks like the nerds truly will inherit the earth.

Kim Kelly firmly believes that YOB will win a Grammy someday; for now, she's on Twitter.