Part of the monthly column ‘Degtyarov’s Despotisms’, posted every last Friday of the month
Whenever a metal journalist calls for more diversity in metal, stop reading immediately and never click on any of their articles again. That is, should you expect said journo to be concerned with introducing you to good music rather than what most conveniences them from a political point of view. While the concept of diversity has been thoroughly soiled through its many invocations in the political arena as a gladiator of Good Virtue, our concern in this column is more specifically with the damaging effects that this drive to ‘augment diverse voices’ has in practice. Such an obsession generally manifests itself either with excessive attention for the band’s extramusical identity (be it trans, muslim or any perceived ‘marginalised’ group) or by the author emphasising the band’s ethnic/geographical origins in attempt to create an aura of exoticism around the music.
The idea behind diversifying metal is that more diverse ‘voices’ and ‘experiences’ will automatically lead to more diverse art; more different kinds of music for us listeners to enjoy. It sounds logical, but, as said, the prevalent notion of diversity among metal journalists zooms in on the identity of the band members rather than the music they produce. Inevitably, instead of scouting for good, original music, these presumed gatekeepers of good taste will seek out bands comprised of sexual, religious or ethnic minorities who sound exactly the same as popular bands so they can triumphantly exclaim: “You see, they are just as good as making this type of music as white males!” Hence, calls to ‘boost minority voices’ are disingenuous, as they supersede the quality of the music proper and rely exclusively on the bean-counting required to galvanise their quixotic tirades against the white and patriarchic bastion that metal supposedly is. What they fail to understand is that, by championing diversity in such a way that it undercuts truly creative and distinct expression, they are doing both their readers and the respective bands a disservice. An Alcest clone from India is still an Alcest clone, and applauding these ‘noble savages’ for mustering the skill to produce a semi-coherent rip-off of Western metal carries with it the stench of condescension rather than the fresh air of a genuine interest in other cultures.
Particularly when it comes to the geographical origin of artists, major metal publications near-exclusively cover bands that are still heavily rooted in Western metal styles. This lowers the bar for their readers, an increasing number of whom will view black metal through a lens of ironic detachment and are thus unprepared to make excessive efforts to venture off the trodden path. At most, the likes of Noisey, Metalsucks, et al. will focus on bands who offer slightly exotic takes on Western styles without it influencing the underlying structure of the music too much. A group such as Tengger Cavalry is ‘ethnic’ only at the superficies, as their standard, recognisably Western compositions are adorned by several folk instruments, but not intrinsically influenced by traditional Mongolian music. As such, their style can effectively be summarised as being Turanic metalcore. Similarly, the Saudi band Al-Namrood creates Arabian atmospheres, but these Middle-Eastern frills are draped around a skeleton of frankly unadventurous black metal not dissimilar to what has been emanating from most European and North-American metal scenes for years.
When you look at the choices metal journalists make when deciding which music reaches the ears of their readership, it should be obvious that calls for diversity seldom lead to a broader scope of metal from a musical or ethnic perspective. This is an inevitability when the bands in question are chosen as the flag-bearers of diversity, we repeat, for their uncommon geography or the alternative lifestyles of their members rather than the music itself. How else could a band such as Ultar be introduced to the general audience with the exotic promise of perhaps “the only Siberian atmospheric black metal band” when they play the exact same post-black metal as any random American group that tries to ride the Californian waves of the Deafheaven hype? What is the use of underlining their Siberian roots when it is impossible to deduct them from the music itself? In essence, we are told that a musical territory which brought forth everything from fascinating forms of traditional music to a legendary post-punk and darkwave movement is now represented by a Westernised band that, at least from the outside, appear to be completely detached from all of those influences. Those truly concerned with more variety and authenticity in metal should realise that presenting a cosmopolitan take on metal as an organic expression from an arcane land is in fact detrimental to the chances of local scenes ever developing a voice of their own. Such effects are not mere speculation: we have already been able to observe this in the Colombian metal scene, which went from giving us the likes of Parabellum to churning out horrid Nuclear Blastcore that tries to copy already uninteresting bands from Europe, all in a leisurely pursuit of pesos. As a result, we are now stuck with Thy Antichrist and their revoltingly stale ilk.
Given that metal writers who concern themselves with diversity are often part of a political current that misses no opportunity to stress the importance of cultural sensitivity, it is highly ironic that they have no qualms reducing an artist’s cultural background to a marketing device. Around the time of Halloween we get told that a culture is not a costume, but nobody bats an eye when a fellow scribe uses a culture as a quirk to help pitch a band to their reader base. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with mentioning or even emphasising the cultural roots of a band, but the narrative gains a foul taste when artists are presented as de facto ‘demographic representatives’ of their regions or countries when the author has obviously not taken the time to examine the local scene, the culture, or the musical history of the area. While such investigation techniques belong to the basic tenets of journalism, it is often too much to ask from those who operate under the umbrella of metal journalism. Is it any wonder, then, that, before their exposé, Ghost Bath were introduced to us as the Chinese ambassadors of black metal?
Something is amiss when those who claim to want to expand the horizons of metal at the same time feed their audience achingly subpar bands who may live in exotic locales or sport peculiar identities, but do not contribute anything to the genre except more oversaturation. If someone claims to love oriental food, but would think twice before entering a traditional Chinese restaurant that does not cater to Western taste, they clearly do not like oriental food as much as the air of ‘culturedness’ that comes with it. Similarly, if a journo declares Project A the poster boys of Russian, Chinese or Colombian metal, yet Project A has little connection to its local music tradition, said reporter is clearly not qualified to make such claims.
Practical obligations aside, we should conclude by noting that the very assumption that extramusical diversity of whatever kind — be it sex, race or religion — is a prerequisite for metal to flourish was already proven false over two decades ago by a handful of bored Norwegian teenagers. That is not to say quality metal cannot emerge from unlikely places. However, this has much less to do with religiously seeking out ‘demographic representatives’ or ‘oppressed voices’ than it does with local groups of musicians inspiring each other to create excellent music. Such musicians — many of whom you can read about on this very website — deserve your support; much more so than whatever generic novelty act is hurled at you by predominantly American outlets under the banner of diversity. We all deserve something better than this, so it is in our own interest to make sure only quality is rewarded.