Babyfaces of Death: The well-adjusted headbangers of Southern Darkness Fest.

How did heavy metal get so . . . hip?

click to enlarge Max loves heavy metal AND has a cute girlfriend. - David Z. Morris
David Z. Morris
Max loves heavy metal AND has a cute girlfriend.

“Sludge metal has more vocals. Doom metal is more consistently slow, and it’s got more of a stoner rock influence.” Evan Chebot knows his metal microgenres, and he came all the way from Orlando to soak in it at the Southern Darkness Festival over the weekend. He’s also clearly a tube-grown clone of Ryan Gosling, with a pencil-tapered blonde mustache, a Brylcreemed trim parted sharply on the left, and cheekbones you could slice a cucumber with.

Heavy metal used to be for outcasts — pimpled teenage wretches and full-grown parking-lot stoners for whom getting a girlfriend and successfully summoning a demon were equally realistic scenarios. But over the last ten years or so, some strains of metal have been adopted by the hippest of the hip crowd. Bands like Southern Darkness headliners Pelican get great reviews on Pitchfork. For serious music fans under 30, Sleep and Sunn o)))) are probably more revered than Radiohead.

“It’s not an infiltration, but it is a difference,” says Sam, the bearded proprietor of Jacksonville’s Primal Vomit Records, standing next to loaded table of obscure tapes at Crowbar. “I can’t be totally against it, because it is support. I guess I straddle the fence.”

Southern Darkness provided a concentrated dose of metal’s new upmarket energy. There were big smiles everywhere — today’s metal fans are as gleeful as the Judas Priest fans of " target="_blank">Heavy Metal Parking Lot. But they’ve got their fashion game much more locked down than ‘80s headbangers — no zebra bodysuits here, just lots of black T-shirts, sleeveless denim jackets, and fresh Chuck Taylors. And while they may not be uniformly clean-cut, they’re definitely very clean, which has some kind of cause/effect relationship with the fact that 70% of the crowd was young couples — that oddly conventional index of true upwardly mobile alpha hipster status.

(Side note on those T-shirts: I saw an awfully lot of kids wearing shirts for bands playing the festival. Has Jeremy Piven taught us nothing?)

“It would be a different story if we’d put on a death metal festival,” Says Peter Olen, who has been putting on metal shows in Tampa for more than a decade, and worked together with Jerry DuFrain and Sandy Zapata to make Southern Darkness happen. Olen says that death metal, the subgenre pioneered by Central Florida innovators like Morbid Angel and Death, has absorbed less influence from punk over the years, staying more artistically and socially static.

Not to mention less friendly — my friend Jared grew up in Ocala, where, he says, “my friends got into death metal. And they’d fuck shit up.”

“That’s just not what we wanted to do,” Olen says. Instead, Southern Darkness showcased mainly doom metal, the super-slow variety that may be the most overtly arty of today’s metal, and grindcore, whose triple-time intensity dropped almost directly from the tree of punk. Both subgenres, for whatever reason, have pretty shiny, happy fans these days.

I can see the appeal of hyperactive acts like Maruta, Magrudergrind, and Coke Bust, who ripped up Crowbar like artsy reincarnations of Madball or Suicidal Tendencies. But let’s just admit it: I’m old as dirt, so I’m personally a little more partial to the slow burn of the doom/sludge/stoner axis going down at Orpheum. The discovery of the fest for me was ASG, whose chunky riffs split the difference between Sleep and the Allman Brothers. Then of course there was Bongripper, whose monolithic sludgescapes were my main motivation for getting out to Southern Darkness in the first place, and thoroughly melted my face.

And the kids sure loved it.

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