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How metal survived the epic clusterf**k that was 2020

2020

In 2020, heavy music faced challenges unlike anything before. Well, the planet faced challenges that changed life as we knew it; first it was rescheduled/cancelled gigs, then festivals and eventually even venues and bars were on the chopping block, including London’s very own rock’n’roll mecca, Crobar (which has since launched a crowdfunding campaign to give it a new lease of life). But the music world pushed back – hard.

The ‘We Make Events’, ‘Let The Music Play’ and ‘Save Our Venues’ campaigns established some crucial visibility for the arts industry (which supplied £5.8 billion to the economy in 2019). They highlighted how the mass shut- down had effectively put more than 200,000 jobs at risk, putting pressure on the government to provide support – something that ultimately came in the form of a sweeping grant to at least keep the lights on for a time. Even those who didn’t benefit from the grants found some solace in turning to the community they served to stay afloat, with fundraising campaigns for ArcTanGent and Radar to continue their goal of delivering line-ups stacked with some of metal’s hottest new acts.

The disruption of usual income streams also pushed musicians themselves to innovate. The likes of Devin Townsend and Cristina Scabbia took to Twitch (following internet kings Trivium) to share playthroughs, songwriting workshops and general Q&As, while artists such as While She Sleeps launched Patreon pages to offer interactive fan club experiences while also securing their futures financially by offering a whole heap of goodies; hell, you can even subscribe to find out the real-life history behind every Sabaton song!

As Orange Goblin frontman Ben Ward put it, “All bands and artists are having to embrace new initiatives to get music out to people. Uncertainty is rife throughout the industry right now, from soundmen and lighting directors through to guitar techs, venue owners and bar staff – everybody is affected. It’s scary thinking what we will be returning to, if we ever go back to ‘normal’ as we knew it, so I think [livestreams and socially distanced shows] are the route everyone has to take.”

It wasn’t a total wash- out for live music, mind. At the start of the year, Slipknot were recorded at the legendary Maida Vale Studios for BBC Radio 1 while over for their sold-out arena tour, offering a rare chance to see the band in an intimate setting, stripping back the bells and whistles of their live show. It was – of course – completely insane and utterly incendiary. At the other end of the scale was the arena spectacular of 5FDP/Megadeth, while Lindemann kept it weird by pelting their audience with cream pies and dead fish.

Lockdown may have severely curtailed shows since, but artists still found ways to bring the magic of live music back… ish. Over on the continent, Doro played a series of drive-in shows, while the rest of the world enjoyed the likes of Metallica, Code Orange, Trivium, Mr. Bungle, Puscifer, Paradise Lost and countless others from the comfort of their living rooms, as livestreamed gigs officially became A Thing (though a tenner says we’ll still have dickheads filming entire shows!).

It wasn’t just individual streams, either – the likes of Download, Hellfest, Bloodstock (under the banner of the European Metal Festival Alliance) and even Knotfest provided expansive programmes comprised of massive metal names and rising stars to give fans their festival fix, as well as unveiling some pretty spectacular line-ups for next year.

We had massive anniversaries (DeftonesWhite Pony, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish… all turned 20, while Black Sabbath’s first two records turned 50), even bigger comebacks (who’d have thought Ozzy would release his most career-defining record since 1991’s No More Tears?!), and surprise songs from Gojira and AC/DC. The extra time at home also provided a perfect opportunity to get to grips with some rock’n’roll autobiographies from Dave Mustaine (Rust In Peace) and Rob Halford (Confess) – even Adrian Smith couldn’t resist with Monsters Of River & Rock, his book covering his longtime love affairs with Iron Maiden and fishing (and even more impressively, turning it into the warmest, funniest book on metal you’re likely to read this year). Plus, Metal Hammer Japan launched, further strengthening our global community. 

Of course, these developments would mean nothing without great releases to bring everything home. This year has supplied us with a diverse array of fantastic albums and EPs. There was everything from extreme metal (Napalm Death, Anaal Nathrakh), to hardcore (Code Orange, Sharptooth), avant-garde metal (Oranssi Pazuzu, Imperial Triumphant), to trap metal (Backxwash, Mimi Barks), proving that metal is more diverse than ever and adherent to the only thing that matters – that the music fucking slays. More than that, though, 2020 has proven that metal is a genre that still has something to say on a global scale.

Fifty years ago, Black Sabbath chose to open second record Paranoid with War Pigs, ensuring that the intersection between politics and heavy metal went right to the genre’s roots (itself continuing a trend begun with the blues almost 50 years before that). So it wasn’t surprising to see them taking up the Black Lives Matter cause following the murder of George Floyd. They were by no means the only legends to do so; others including M. Shadows and Serj Tankian offered their support to protesters. Bands of all sizes got involved – Machine Head teamed up with Killswitch Engage vocalist Jesse Leach for the protest song Stop The Bleeding, artists like Derange created compilations devoted to the movement, while others including Vile Creature, Couch Slut, Code Orange and Every Time I Die put proceeds from merch and album sales towards BLM-focused initiatives set up to help protesters. Fever 333 most captured the mood when they staged a poignant livestream ‘demonstration’ that combined politics and art in a way seldom seen since Rage Against The Machine first burst into the world. 

It wasn’t just artists, either; the wider music industry participated in ‘Blackout Tuesday’ – a day of reflection in solidarity with the protests but also a chance to explore its own role in representation for people of colour. As Fever 333 vocalist Jason Aalon Butler said in an impassioned Hammer piece in July: “The music industry needs to start offering their platform to more black people on a consistent level, not being afraid of losing one demographic when they represent another, which is afraid of losing their less adversity-riddled demographic when they put on an adversity-riddled artist, due to their culture, environment and circumstance.”

There have been times this year when it has felt like the world is on fire (and times where significant parts of it were), but so many artists and fans have stepped up to provide hope. Acts of charity have not been in small supply; fundraisers like Deftones’ Adopt-A-Dot helped support the often unseen and overlooked crews that make shows around the world a possibility, as well as a Sacramento children’s hospital, while Skindred and Download Festival both sold t-shirts to generate funds for the NHS. More than ever before, heavy metal is a global community, and this was reflected in the initiatives set up by some of our leading international acts. Nepalese metallers Underside relaunched the Metal For Nepal charity to support those at risk during the pandemic, and Golden Gods 2018 Global Metal Award winner Anthony Kaoteon dedicated proceeds from the song Thawra, from the upcoming second Death Tribe record, to support victims of the horrific explosion in Beirut in August.

Elsewhere, Sepultura and Arandu Arakuaa released singles to raise awareness of the ethnocide and ecocide facing indigenous peoples in Brazil, while even System Of A Down were galvanised into releasing their first new songs in 15 years to document the attacks on their cultural homelands of Artsakh. Combined, the message is clear: metal stands in solidarity with those oppressed, under-represented and at risk.

So, what next? Considering 2020 was the year we got a candle that smells like Lemmy, James Hetfield actually made some tables and the world went to hell in a handbasket, it’s fair to say it’s offered up some of the best, worst and weirdest things in heavy metal history. But throughout it all is the sense that when things looked bleak, heavy metal stepped up, with fans, bands and industry professionals alike working to make the world a better place.

Heavy metal has been built on looking at the bigger picture, never shying away from making its voice heard on a global scale, creating kinship across ethnic and national lines that in turn influences wider culture (not least getting fossils and animals named after Rotting Christ, The Ocean and Nightwish this year). To do otherwise now would be a compromise of everything heavy metal culture has been built on – an absolute bastard of a year, but one that brought out the best in so many of us.