In the world of music, there are few true heavy metal superstars. For the most part, those who reach the top don’t gain popularity by simply uploading a video to YouTube or lending a track to a television sitcom soundtrack.
For metal bands, the only legitimate path to success is good musicianship, a trusty tour van and the ability to win fans in supposed cultural backwaters like Lewiston-Auburn, as well as in the big cities.
One band that has traveled that road, head-banging and hammering away on their instruments while metamorphosing from a regional act to an international touring metal behemoth, is Unearth, a Massachusetts-based group that played in front of nearly 400 people at Club Texas in Auburn on Tuesday.
In 1999 and 2000, before Unearth toured Europe and before they spent summers as a supporting act on Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest tour, they were playing in Maine six or seven times a year, founding vocalist Trevor Phipps said.
In those early days, the band played to small crowds in small rooms, often not even in actual music venues. Some of their earliest shows were at the Auburn YMCA Teen Center and the Lewiston YWCA, booked by local bands formed by high school students.
But even in those unprofessional surroundings, Unearth was a memorable band, their tight riffs and bludgeoning breakdowns on the forefront of the nascent metalcore subgenre, which blends the polish of metal with the ferocity of hardcore punk. The response from the kids was good, and Unearth kept coming back, building a fan base.
One group of kids, who all wore yellow landscaping gloves with the letter X drawn on them in black permanent marker and called themselves the “207 Crew,” came to nearly every show in Lewiston-Auburn, Phipps said. “They were huge supporters.”
They danced as hard as the band played, and they and other fans who got excited by the music gave the Y shows a sense of energy that could not be bounded by community center walls. “It was killer,” Phipps said.
Despite their current prominence on the metal scene, Unearth has not forgotten those early shows. The band makes it a point to return to the state once or twice a year to perform, Phipps said, sitting on the tour bus. The band is traveling around the U.S. with the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, headlined by rock radio favorites Disturbed and Godsmack and the ’80s metal stalwart Megadeath.
While the larger festival tour took a night off from playing arenas and enormous parking lots Tuesday night, Unearth came to Auburn for the much smaller club show with tour mates Suicide Silence, Red Fang and All Shall Perish.
“If you don’t go back once in a while, you’re not going to last as a band,” Unearth bassist John Maggard said.
“Without the fans, there is no band,” Phipps said.
Central Maine has long been an incubator for metal and other forms of heavy music, said Chris Brown, a spokesman for the record store chain Bull Moose Music. A significant number of the bands spawned in the area play metal or hard rock, and some, like Lewiston-Auburn’s Uncle Jack in the ’90s and Oxford’s Dead Season in the current decade, have accumulated considerable followings.
“People really love metal around here,” said Wayne St. Germain, a local metal fan and former front man for the horror-influenced rock band the Motor Creeps.
Bull Moose’s three central Maine locations — Lewiston, Windham and Waterville — sell more metal and hard rock CDs than their stores in Southern Maine or New Hampshire, Brown said, and more than most record stores in general.
In the past, Roadrunner Records, a label that specializes in heavy metal and has released albums from Slipknot and Theory of A Deadman, used the region as a testing ground for new acts, figuring that if a rock act couldn’t win over central Maine, they wouldn’t make a splash in other areas either, Brown said.
A metal community
Attempting to explain the popularity of heavy music in Lewiston-Auburn and the rest of central Maine, Brown mentioned a longstanding rock radio station, saying, “WTOS has something to do with it.” But he said that while it’s difficult to generalize about the reasons for any given person’s interest in heavy metal, the genre’s popularity may be due in part to the fact that the region isn’t a trendy urban center.
“When you get out of cities, you get to places where people are a little more themselves and a little less focused on what’s hip, and people focus more on what they like, rather than what they’re supposed to like,” Brown said.
Once a listener takes an interest in metal, it often becomes more than something to listen to in the car. A person might like a few songs or hit singles from an artist on MTV or the radio, Brown said. “But that doesn’t make you a fan of the artist, where you want the CD and the T-shirt,” and will travel to see their shows.
“Metal feels like a community between the band and the fans,” Brown said.
The basis for that community, said Unearth’s Phipps, is the music. “It’s definitely a taste thing; it’s not for everybody.”
Given that the buzzwords used to describe most boundary-pushing metal bands include terms such as “brutal,” “chaotic,” “punishing” and “spastic,” it’s not surprising that the genre doesn’t get much airplay.
“That’s what cements the community,” Phipps said. “When there’s this whole group of people that can find the value of the abrasive music, that’s what it’s all about. It’s definitely a kinship.”
Because metal concerts are typically interactive, the live show is the heart of the scene. Club shows in particular feed metal’s community element, for both bands and fans.
“It defines the band when you play the smaller shows,” Phipps said. “It shows their true energy.”
And energy, of course, is what it’s all about.
If the band is good and the space allows — and save for the interference of overbearing club bouncers, almost any space is sufficient — the stage will be open territory for fans to stage dive, air guitar or grab the shoulder of the singer and join them in shouting out a chorus. The floor will be a roiling mass, the center open for the mosh pit.
While the pit is an ugly hive of pushing and shoving for most mainstream metal and rock bands, it’s different for more extreme bands, including those that toe the line between metal and hardcore, like Unearth. The fans of those bands have a repertoire of dance moves: a two-step jog, jumps and fierce-looking kicks, punches and windmills that are released for different tempos and movements of the songs.
The pit also has rules of etiquette: Don’t stay in too long, dance hard but not dangerously, give others space, pick them up if they fall. The pit always has a sense of urgency and danger, but serious injuries are rare. However, those who don’t adhere to pit etiquette — the pushers and shovers — are dealt with harshly.
Other trappings of the metal scene, like long hair and grizzly beards, band T-shirts and black clothing, are secondary — a way for members of the community to recognize each other’s mutual interests in the music and the mosh.
Because the metal scene revolves around a shared love of something that isn’t generally lovable, devotees suffer their fair share of stereotypes. Chief among them is the belief that metal fans lack intellectual prowess and party harder than they think. The stereotype has been treated in both the classic mockumentary film “This is Spinal Tap” and the popular Cartoon Network show “Metalocalypse,” which features a band of slow, callous and ignorant borderline Neanderthals who have managed to gain enormous popularity as a metal act.
Those stereotypes seem to be lessening, Phipps said, compared to his youth not long after the end of the hair metal era. They do persist though, said Unearth bassist John Maggard as he told a story about applying for a delivery job at a Budweiser distributor.
When the hiring managers heard he was in a metal band, “They didn’t take me seriously,” he said. They gave him the job, he said, mostly because he had friends already working for the company, and asked that if he couldn’t manage the first day of work, he at least finish the driving route rather than abandoning the truck in a parking lot somewhere.
“And that was just for a blue-collar job!” he said, incredulous. “I’m not afraid to work.”
For most, though, it seems that the simplest rebuttal to the stereotype is the music itself. While it may be challenging to listen to, many metal bands take musical cues from the time-signature changes of jazz and the epic songwriting of classical music.
“It can be incredibly complex,” metal fan St. Germain said. “I think some of the big power metal bands have some of the most intricate musicianship I think I’ve ever heard.”