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Who Will Be the Biggest Metal Bands of the Future?

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Slayer, Black Sabbath and Ozzy have retired. Long-running favorites likes Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are getting older and won’t be able to go on forever. System of a Down and Tool only play when they damn well please. What will the metal scene look like in five to ten years when those acts are all gone? Who will step in to take their place as headliners?

I’m not talking club headliners — there are plenty of those. There’s a very healthy middle and upper-middle class of metal bands that can sell out 2,000-4,000 capacity rooms the world over. I’m talking the next step, BIG headliners, ones that can top a bill at a festival, arena or stadium. Which bands from the current crop will rise to take that mantle? With metal’s diminished appeal in mainstream music circles, will any?

This topic comes up every couple of years — it was discussed a whole lot when Mayhem Fest founder Kevin Lyman (also of Warped Tour) lamented the lack of headliners in the fest’s final year — and it’s been in the zeitgeist again with Slayer currently taking their “farewell” bow (for touring, anyway; they already have a festival date booked for 2019). Metal Blade head honcho Brian Slagel recently shared his thoughts on the matter.

But first: who are today’s headliners? Metallica, obviously. Slipknot, against all odds: anyone looking at the nu-metal scene in 2001 probably would’ve predicted Korn or Limp Bizkit (or both) would’ve taken that slot, although Korn certainly do very well, too. Iron Maiden, no doubt, although while they still seem spry on stage that won’t last forever. Judas Priest, although their recent North American tour didn’t do the kinds of numbers one might expect (and they, too, are aging). Avenged Sevenfold. Five Finger Death Punch, I guess. The aforementioned System of a Down and Tool, holdovers from metal’s last flirtation with the mainstream. I’m probably missing a few here.

Let’s take a look at some of the bands that could potentially rise to take the headliner throne one by one, starting with a few of the bands Slagel name-checked:

Lamb of God

Lamb of God’s popularity seems to have plateaued over the past decade or so, and there’s a simple reason for that: they’re too heavy! It’s pretty remarkable they’re still as popular as they are and I could certainly be wrong, but I think Lamb of God will need to change up their sound a bit (read: go more mainstream) to take the next step up, and to do so would be extremely un-Lamb of God-ian.

Mastodon

Mastodon are a very good live band, but they’re not a GREAT live band. Most people I speak to feel the same way after going to their shows, and relay some version of this: “Yeah, that was pretty good!” The members mostly just stand and play, there’s not a ton of production and it’s a secret to no one that the vocals are a weak spot. Mastodon have some crossover appeal and plenty of hella catchy songs, sure, but I feel like if they were gonna up the ante it would’ve happened already. The Pitchfork/Stereogum crowd embraced them a full decade ago already… where else is there to go?

Killswitch Engage

Killswitch have been coasting on the same Adam D. riff for a decade now, and while it’s a fucking GREAT riff, bands that don’t evolve musically typically don’t reach the next level (what if they’d released the Serpentine Dominion album as KsE? THAT would’ve been cool!). They took a shot with “End of Heartache” and “My Curse,” and it seemed to work pretty well, but I think the success of those singles was the ceiling for them popularity-wise. Also, much like Lamb of God, I think they’re simply too heavy to bring in all the casual rock fans they’d need to achieve greater success. They’ll have a career for as long as they want, no question about that, but I don’t see headlining arenas in their future. Smaller festival headliners for sure, though, like both of the above.

Amon Amarth

Their popularity seems to grow with every passing album. If there’s any from Slagel’s bunch that I could see taking it to the next level, it’d be Amon Amarth, and the reason is simple: kitsch! People love boats and vikings and guys with giant beards singing about them and windmilling, and they’re willing to overlook the fact that the dude is growling because VIKINGS! The riffs are catchy enough that anyone really put off by death metal vocals can find something to latch onto. It’s an outside shot because Amon Amarth are pretty fucking heavy all things considered (by mainstream standards), but I can definitely envision a scenario in which they bring a massive-sized show to arenas throughout the world in, say, ten years.

Ghost

Everyone is going to say Ghost. And they might be correct. The band will test the waters this coming winter with two arena headline shows in New York and L.A., and those will serve as a barometer for the future and if/how those results are applicable in other markets. Even if those shows don’t sell out (and my gut is that they won’t, or really even come close), this band is very much still on the rise and they have the crossover potential to make the jump in the future. They’ve got the songs, the stage show, the mystique, the gimmick — let’s check back in five years.

Children of Bodom

Killswitch Engage Syndrome times ten. If they were ever going to move up, it would’ve happened a decade ago. They’ll forever have a career as mid-level headliners, though.

The Black Dahlia Murder

No clean-sung vocals. Too heavy! Can you even imagine a TBDM show in an arena? Does not compute.

Arch Enemy

Has been big more a long while now and continues to be. What will — or could — elevate them to the next level? They haven’t got the bombast of Amon Amarth or the crossover potential of Ghost so it’s hard to imagine them bumping it up from here. They also haven’t evolved musically in some time. I’m gonna have to keep them in the “upper middle class headliners forever” tier, along with Bodom.

Whitechapel/Suicide Silence

My gut says both of these bands are WAY too heavy for widespread appeal, but if Whitechapel play their cards right maaaaaaybe they could do it. Probably not, but either way I don’t think Whitechapel have hit their ceiling yet.

Periphery

The most realistic person about Periphery’s level of success is Misha Mansoor himself; he’s well aware of Periphery’s status in the scene, and while his band might have some of the catchiest songs out of this lot, most of their appeal is way too niche (musicians). The only way Periphery ascend to arena level is if they go full on pop-metal, and while they certainly have all the elements in place to pursue that route if they so choose I just don’t see it happening.

Behemoth

I don’t think they’ve hit their ceiling yet, and unlike most bands on this list so far their live show is a fucking SPECTACLE. That theatrical element is so important! Metal fans crave it and need it, and it helps bring in more casual listeners, too. Still, Behemoth are very heavy to the layperson (even if they’re not by today’s extreme metal standards), and it’s hard to imagine that wider audiences will embrace a dude screaming about Satan. Like, your Pitchfork-reading friend who likes Mastodon and a couple of other heavy bands is never gonna dig on Behemoth.

Gojira

Every time I think they’ve finally hit their ceiling they smash right through it. I still encounter people regularly — casual fans of rock and occasionally heavy music — that are just discovering and getting into Gojira. Sure, they’re really god damn heavy (moreso than a lot of the bands above I labeled as “too heavy”), but their live show is so fucking powerful and jaw-droppingly good that they’re capable of speaking to listeners who would ordinarily tune out music like this. A compelling argument could definitely be made for Gojira ascending to true headliner status.

Baroness

The “is it metal or not” argument is definitely going to come into play with Baroness, but for the sake of this argument let’s define eligibility as bands that at the very least came out of the metal scene, which Baroness certainly did. That their current metal-ness is called into question is responsible for their growing popularity in recent years, and I think Baroness’s next album will be even bigger than their last. Will they grow to the level we’re talking about here? I personally don’t think they’ll get quite that big, although I won’t be surprised if they do.

Trivium

This is an interesting one. Trivium burst onto the scene so quickly, and at such a young age, that a lot of people still don’t take them seriously because of it. That said, their popularity has been remarkably consistent, even appearing to grow in recent years. THAT said, they did make a play at hard rock radio a few years ago and it didn’t catch on in the way they seemed to hope it would… so I don’t really know where else Trivium can take things from here.

Deafheaven

This band has already become bigger than anyone thought (likely including the band members themselves), but there’s simply too much screaming for them to ever truly transcend genre boundaries. And let’s be clear: any band that’s gonna play arenas will need to transcend genre boundaries. There will never be enough pure black metal fans to fill an arena, anywhere.

YOUNG BANDS

One thing about most of the bands above: they’re all kinda old! Or they’ve been doing it for so long that they’re basically scene veterans… yeah, let’s call it that. They’re veterans.

If we’re going to have any meaningful conversation about future headliners I believe we’ve got to look to the young bands who are currently tearing shit up in the underground (or are rising out of it). I’d like to posit the following:

Code Orange

Power Trip

Gatecreeper

Rivers of Nihil

Fallujah

Pallbearer

Khemmis

Could any of these be your future headliners? Sound off below.

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