big 4
BIG BUSINESS By the end of the ’80s, the Big
Four —  Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and
Anthrax — filled sheds without the help of
radio or MTV.
In April, thrash metal's self-billed "Big Four" — Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax — played a one-off American show in the middle of the desert in Indio, California. Drawing a little over 60,000 fans, the show was a smash success, prompting an East Coast follow-up on September 14 at Yankee Stadium.

Why no full-on tour? It could be that the egos and encroaching middle age of all four veteran acts complicate things; or maybe it just comes down to the fact that, as Metallica drummer/laughingstock Lars Ulrich sheepishly admitted on LA's KROQ radio in January, "We don't know what kind of response there's gonna be to this in America."

On the one hand, Ulrich is, as per usual, full of shit here: Metallica alone can fill America's enormodomes without breaking a sweat. But perhaps Ulrich's pessimism has to do with pop-culture climate change: in today's musical scene, metal's clout as a large-scale movement just isn't what it used to be.

If anything, metal has been slowly retreating into the cult subculture that it formed from. Its network is vast and international, but its era of critical mass — the 1980s, when it was enough of a phenomenon to scare parents and the government into lawsuits and legislation — has passed by in a puff of dry ice and echoing pick squeals. Exhibit A: going into Google Trends and seeing the 20-degree downward angle decline line since 2004 for instances of "heavy metal" as a Web presence and a news reference keyword. Exhibit B: the increasingly anemic sales of both heavy-metal albums and heavy-metal tours. Exhibit C: the fact that music culture's current taste arbiters, from online mags like Pitchfork and the AV Club to major press outlets and magazines, seem to be completely allergic to metal.

Sure, sure, you're saying, the whole music industry is hurting, and no one is buying albums, regardless of genre. But a glance at the top 50 North American tours of the last year won't yield anything even remotely metal, not until you get to Iron Maiden down at #47 — far below even "Riverdance" and Chelsea Handler, and a far cry from the early 2000s, when Ozzfest would routinely rank near the top of such lists. Metal, once a raging behemoth whose penchant for megalomania seemed destined to ravish the mainstream for millennia, now seems to have shrunk back to an easily ignorable cottage industry.


THE GENRE OF NEGATIVES

There once was a time — from approximately 1983 until 1991 — when metal hit the sweet spot of being both underground enough to be critically lauded, and yet popular enough to be shockingly lucrative. The beginning of this era was the moment when the Priest/Maiden axis of classic metal began to be displaced by the insouciant ugliness of thrash. Like hardcore in the punk world, thrash was in many ways defined by what it wasn't: it wasn't melodic, it wasn't catchy, it wouldn't leash its aggression to court radio or MTV. It was a genre of negatives, with its casual embrace of violence, nihilism, and campy satanism. If Iron Maiden used historical allegory and cartoonish imagery to sell their hard-Ren-Faire pummeling, and Judas Priest pitted Rob Halford's sex-fueled swagger against the gorgeous guitarchitecture of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton's laser-beam fugue-work, '80s thrash was a low-road, speed-gulping belch of sheer velocity and hollowed-out ferocity.

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