I would like to open this yearly review on a personal note: human understanding is incredibly limited in many ways. One of the most prominent ways is our perception of time; beyond any metaphysical assertions that might often “grace” metal lyrics, I’m not talking about any extra-dimensional ideas on the meaning and passage of time. Rather, I am referring to our need of narrative. Time as a whole, even relatively small chunks of it like years, is too big for our conscious minds to fully grasp (and our unconscious minds as well do a lackluster job at archiving it). In order to keep moving forward in spite of this limitation, we must give meaning and form to these obscure concepts, so that we can better parse, grasp and coax meaning out of them. Thus, the instrument of story is like air to us; it is the stuff which makes up the fabric of our lives and allows us to live them relatively sanely. This is a personal note because the idea of story is especially important to me; I barely keep up with my life as it is and telling myself narratives about years and events helps me incredibly.
These ideas are paramount to understanding why this post even exists. Why do we even need yearly reviews? Not just in music but in pretty much all other forms of culture are such wordy formulas present. Newspapers, theaters, organizational bodies, business, all take part in the ritual of introspection and analysis that is the yearly review. They are, in varying degrees depending on the field at hand, nothing more than exercises in telling stories, one of the most important skills a human can master. These reviews allow us to put our finger on things which bothered or pleased us during the year and to make sense of the trends overtaking our social spheres in myriad of ways. And so, Heavy Blog (through the humble vessel of its Editor in Chief) flexes its narration muscles here at the death of the year and looks back at 2017.
So, what is the crux of my story? What drama and conflict shall fuel my review of 2017? The main one will certainly be personal, as I started this post on the same note. 2017, my fourth year with Heavy Blog, was perhaps the most humbling one. Armed with the security of the years that were 2015 and 2016, I was fully prepared for another installment in “The Golden Age” narrative. This is an idea we have espoused for years at Heavy Blog, inherited from one Brian Shields (may his dabs be plentiful in the great mosh pit in the sky), which says that metal is experiencing and has been experiencing a renaissance for quite a while now. To support this story, we pointed towards the number of incredible releases, the technological solutions unfolding before our eyes to make those releases readily available to the masses and the overall proliferation and revitalization of genres and great work within them.
So did 2017 kill “The Golden Age” narrative? Not quite. But I believe it should force us to reconsider the ways in which it is applicable, in 2017 and beyond it. This is, essentially, a good thing; if we make our narrative more flexible and adaptive, it will serve us better in the years to come. This will be the main thrust of this review, the how and the why of the permutations to my overall narrative of the metal (and, to a lesser extent, the musical) community. These permutations do not go against the overreaching narrative; I firmly believe that metal had a great year in 2017. But it was definitely great in ways much different to 2016 and we are required to display the mental flexibility required to recognize those ways and work them into our grander story, so that that story becomes a more powerful and accurate explanatory tool.
The Narrowing of the Way
The first of these permutations is what I’ve dubbed the “Narrowing of the Way”. This idea, quite grandiose in and of itself, I know, refers to the decrease in variety that metal seems to have undergone during 2017. As I’ve recently done on the podcast with Noyan, let’s take technical death metal as an example; 2016 saw great releases in a diverse field of different ways in technical death metal. Releases included Ulcerate (crushing and all-encompassing), Virvum (on the verge of progressive, atmospheric and far-ranging), Mithras (cold and foreboding), Fallujah (melodic and expansive), Gorguts (absurdly technical and epic) and Obscura (mighty and mind boggling). These are all vastly different albums and there were many more released; these are just the ones that made it into our Top 50.
This year, technical death metal has tightened its ranks. Now, I obviously don’t mean that that happened by intention, by any means; technical death metal isn’t an entity ruled by some secretive (and probably NYC based) Council of Sweeps, although I admit that that would be incredibly awesome. But, for one reason or another and probably way more than one, technical death metal has revolved mainly around one sound: the mighty skronk. These dark releases filled with brooding riffs, abrasive vocals and the rancor of nihilism include (but are not limited to) Pyrrhon, Dodecahedron, Artificial Brain, John Frum, Ingurgitating Oblivion and many more. While a few bands, like Archspire, broke free of that oppressive and experimental sound, the end result of 2017 for technical death metal is still that of a monolithic sound, especially when compared to what the genre did in 2016.
While this permutation to the narrative isn’t exactly true for other places in the community (like black metal, which we’ve already mentioned lacked a clear cut narrative in 2017), it’s also accurate for a lot more. Doom and stoner this year, for example, were also dominated by certain sounds where more variance was present in the past. Sure, we had Dreadnought in doom but a lot of the high-impact, high-reach releases were from bands like Bell Witch, Loss and their ilk, cascading funereal doom which captured the attention of the media and listeners a like. Stoner was also dominated with a progressive tendency, with releases from Pallbearer (who have long drifted away from doom and closer to stoner, with Heartless being the culmination of that drift), Elder, Dvne and many, many, many more bands operating exclusively within progressive stoner metal (seriously, there have been so many of these releases this year).
Now, is the “Narrowing of the Way” a bad thing? Certainly not; some of the best albums of the year are listed above. But it is something which needs to be accounted for when summarizing 2017; we can’t just take the “Golden Age” storyline and hammer it into place on top of 2017’s topography. Instead, we can incorporate this “Narrowing” into it, pointing out to the number of great releases still being made, even inside a more limited spectrum of genres. Our advice from when we originally posted about the “Golden Age”, is amplified then; in 2017, more than the years which preceded, you need to listen broadly if you want to find greatness. Where previous years handed you variety on a silver spoon, in 2017 a listener in search for true classics must seek out that variety since any one genre becomes narrower.
The Ubiquity of Listener/Artist Communication
The second permutation to the “Golden Age” narrative which 2017 forces upon us has to do with the tools with which we listen to music. Where streaming services were something new and unknown in the last few years, I feel that 2017 represented a watershed moment for them in becoming ubiquitous to our community. A good example is Spotify’s end of year posts; they seem to be everywhere this year, as they give artists quantifiable variables through which to measure their success during 2017. Likewise, the prevalence of tools like Bandcamp, Patreon and crowdfunding in general (not that the first is crowdfunding, but it does share the “direct listener/artist communication” type of design) has grown during 2017.
The Patreon accounts for bands like Ne Obliviscaris and Allegaeon, both started in 2016, have grown increasingly faster during the year and have been integrated into the community’s landscape. You still hear a spark or two of outrage out there, but all in all the furor around them has died down. More bands are turning towards this kind of tool, whether Patreon or other crowdfunding platforms, to make their albums and go on tours. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I leave to the reader, since opinions run hot and I believe there are good points to be made on both sides of the discussion (although I support crowdfunding for bands, I believe there are still many questions to be asked about how and why the model works for the listeners). In 2017, however, the existence and widespread nature of the tool appears to have de-facto gone orthodox, to become a legitimate and, at the very least, prevalent tool for metal bands.
And Bandcamp? Bandcamp continues to grow as a music streaming service but it has also taken a bold step forward as a content creator, using its stage to launch a series of incredibly successful and influential articles. A lot of them don’t have anything to do with metal but a fair number of them really do, shining a light on specific genres, obscure scenes and diverse sounds. The in depth research and writing which goes into these article has honestly been a blessing; whether you’re already aware of the bands which the service has been exposing or if you’re a newcomer to them, the importance of what Bandcamp are doing should be obvious. No other streaming/purchasing service except for maybe Apple Music (which have a curated playlist feature that’s pretty good) have been doing their part as they have in exposing people to new music.
And that’s perhaps the greatest shattering of the narrative which 2017 brought us. As we stand now, after the American repeal of net neutrality, after the dubious amount of rumors around Spotify’s business practices, after Soundcloud’s brush with death and consequent bailout, we must ask ourselves whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past by not asking more of our tools, as a community. Should we be satisfied with a good UI and fast features when using music streaming services? Why is Bandcamp the only company out there who seem to actually care about the music being made, even the more obscure and unique kinds of it? Most importantly, why do we take it? Why are the important questions about our tools not being asked and which are the important questions that even need asking? Where previous years were colored by excitement at the amount of music we are now exposed to, 2017 should, I believe, add a permutation to our narrative around the responsibility and nature of the tools which allow, and benefit from, said exposure.
What We Did and Where We’re Going
Lastly, I’d like to talk about Heavy Blog itself and what we did in 2017 and maybe a bit about where we’re going. If you look back at our post from 2015, when we first embarked on the changes that have made up what Heavy Blog means today, you’ll see that we did pretty much everything we planned. We cut back on news, we focused more on the music, on content lists and deep dive articles. 2017 was a continuation of that process and a solidification around what this process actually means to us. This arrived in the form of our repeating columns, like Doomsday, Death’s Door, Grind My Gears and the like. We think that format has a lot of power and focuses on what we’d like to focus and what we believe you, as readers, care about: the music. In that regard, 2017 has been very good to us; we feel like we’ve fleshed out our direction a bit more and are now ready to start looking into doing even more in depth work.
But, and we’re being brutally honest here, 2017 has also been a hard year for us, like it has for a lot of you out there. Our personal lives have all changed, sometimes because of our own private facts of life and sometimes because of the many deplorable ways in which the societies we live in have changed. We’ve always been very honest about politics so let us continue that by saying that many of us have already suffered under the Trump administration and will continue to do so. Our personal lives were irrevocably changed by things like the travel ban (even though it never went into full force) and are going to be changed if some of the things the administration proposes will come to pass (hint: more than half of our staff have student loan debt and some of them are public servants, counting on the way out that that line of work represents).
More close to home, the Internet continues to change. Even if Net Neutrality is somehow saved, the death throes of the Internet as we’ve known it for the past few years is in full swing. The consolidation of the indexing, servicing and sharing of the Internet under the auspices of Google, Amazon and Facebook, continues full force (if you’re looking into an in depth explanation of this, start here). If you’re not feeling this, it’s because you’re not on the content creating side of the Internet; anyone who is, is affected by these changes. Viewership on everywhere that doesn’t deal in clickbait is down, Facebook’s reach algorithms are becoming more and more money-hungry (which is, of course, their right as providers of services we use but is, nonetheless, incredibly difficult for us) and the state of small, volunteer-based content publishers like ours continues to be more and more dire.
However, when you combine the last factor of 2017 for Heavy Blog with the two above it, you get the reason why we’re sticking around. Ever since I’ve taken over managing this website in 2014, I’ve always kept doing this for one thing and one thing only: the readers. You guys. In 2017, I got to see and interact with a lot more of you, and that has been amazing. I’ve seen more shares from bands, more comments from readers and more contact with the industry at large than we’ve ever had. I think that’s a very good sign for us; I think it means that even in the ever-changing landscape of the Internet that we now find ourselves in, there’s room and demand for the kind of work that Heavy Blog does. I think it means there’s a real thirst out there for in-depth commentary, a spotlight on music and the sort of writing that we espouse here in the blog.
It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get it not only to you but to your friends and strangers on the streets and others who might be interested. I think 2018 and the years beyond it are going to necessitate that we get better and more original at this; the share to Facebook and Tweet buttons will stay but we can no longer rely on them for our reach, for our readership. We need to get creative in the ways in which we distribute the blog; that’s one of the biggest lessons that I’m going to take away from 2017. I’m already thinking of new ideas. Some of them will fail, some of them will be too weird. But some of them will succeed and, one or another, Heavy Blog will be around. We ain’t going anywhere, ya hear? You’re cursed with us and like all good curses, we last way more than a few years.
See you in 2018; we’re going to have to fight for what we love. 2017 was a year where we reeled with shock; 2018 is when we start to gather our forces and figure out where we go from here. Never forget that you’re the best readership out there and that we love you all. Never forget that you’re living in the Golden Age of Metal, with any permutations that idea might need to survive into the future. It’s up to us to make it live; it’s up to us to keep the Golden Age from fading. We’ll see you on the barricades. Are you with us?