Black metal in its early '90s glory was as far away from the stadium-huge plodding of Black Album–era Metallica as possible. It was dark and incomprehensible; more important, it broke a sacred pact of pre-'90s metal, that the artist must be eternally grateful to the audience. Metal, despite its dark themes, was always at heart a two-way lovefest between the band and the crowd: from Ozzy's exhortations of "We love you!" to the requisite "You guys are the best!" that one would hear between songs at even the most brutal Slayer negfests. Black metal spat on these expected conventions: they weren't going to couch their grim sentiments in crowd-pleasing mosh breakdowns. Hell, they weren't going to play shows at all.

In a sense, the music wasn't the draw for black metal; with the genre's second wave came a spate of non-musical controversies ranging from the early-'90s black-metal-related Norwegian church burnings to a series of gruesome band-related murders and suicides. It was metal culture taken to its logical conclusion, as the flirtations with evil that '80s thrash titans took to the bank became real-life actions by their '90s counterparts. Above all, it was an ugly metal culture with an ugly sound — and by the mid-to-late-1990s, that ugliness proved to be a match for the unattractive turn taken by post-grunge nu-metal. Together, black metal and the rap-and-sludge hybrid of nu-metallers like Korn, Limp Bizkit, et al formed a spectrum of misanthropic slop that didn't even really rock. It ushered in a new era of experimentalism and diversity in the genre — but in many ways, this period signaled the sunset of metal as a mass unifying movement.

THE LITTLE FORTY MILLION

If metal now lacks the focal points of previous decades, it is still one of the most dependable genres for a never-ceasing crop of high-quality new bands and records. If anything, modern metal is too great, with too much to choose from. Subgenres have gone mad with niche-ification, meaning that even the most obscure wing of metal is packed to the gills with great active bands. It really is an all-you-can-stand buffet of awesomeness.

Like stretched-out landscapes of brutality? Recent releases by Liturgy, YOB, Tombs, Agalloch, and Krallice sound like a microgenre continually surpassing its apex. Do you pine for high-grade thrash-redux? Bands like Skeletonwitch, Fueled By Fire, Cauldron, Amon Amarth, Holy Grail, and Municipal Waste are in many ways better than their '80s forefathers. Or maybe you drool over super-technical nerd-growl weirdness — in which case, new records by Deathspell Omega, Revocation, or Blut Aus Nord will fill that special void in you.

The downside to this proliferation of brutality is that metal has become almost a pure commodity, the musical equivalent of corn or soybeans. Metal bands succeed based not on their ability to set the world on its head: they merely need to be tight and competent enough to sound more brutal than the bands that go on right before them. The first wave of thrash bands took the nascent metal of their forbearers and distilled it to its essence; it was music that was all rad parts, no filler. But 30 years later, fans can't remember what metal sounded like with filler thrown in there for dynamic relief, and it is an almost insurmountable challenge for a band to stand out amidst the molten heap of riffs and blastbeats that is metal's collective heritage.

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