VNZMAs - Kiwi metalheads seeking justice for all
Metal fans show off their horns (Reuters)
By Dan Satherley
Metalheads, sick of being left out, want in on the music industry's annual celebration of its best and brightest, the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.
Held at Vector Arena this November, this year's VNZMAs will dish out gongs for the best in rock, pop, roots, hip hop, alternative, Maori, electronica and even Christian music, but metal bands needn't even show up.
There's no metal category, sad but true, and that's got metal fans seeking justice for all.
Sarah Sampson runs an events and management company, looking after bands which play "various forms of metal, alternative, grunge metal, black and death metal".
Earlier this year she set up an online petition and Facebook page calling for the VNZMAs to introduce a metal category, saying metal bands are missing out.
"I started this petition because I've volunteered at the music awards the last two years and I'm pretty much one of the only metalheads there," says Sampson.
"I've met so many people like, Universal record label people, TV presenters, newspaper reporters, all that, and just sort of felt it's such an awesome experience, and it's a real shame that metal bands miss out on all that."
So far, over 800 people have signed the petition to have a separate award for metal, and over 1,100 joined the Facebook campaign. Still, the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand, the awards' puppet master, considers it the thing that should not be.
“We carefully look at the categories every year to make sure as wide a range of artists as possible can enter," managing director Chris Caddick told 3 News.
"The ‘Best Rock Album’ category states artists working primarily in the rock, hard rock and heavy metal genres are eligible.”
In a nutshell, the industry expects bands like Dawn of Azazel and World War Four to ride the lightning with radio favourites OpShop and the Feelers if they want some recognition.
METAL 'IGNORED' BY INDUSTRY
World War Four singer Paul Martin says metal bands don't get a fair go at the VNZMAs.
"The rock category is far too broad," says Martin. "If you look who's won the rock category for the last few years it's kind of shameful, really. It's pop bands and it's alternative bands.
"There just needs to be another category that's exclusive because there's exclusive categories for all these other genres, but for some reason we've just been ignored."
For the last 24 years Martin has hosted The Axe Attack, an all-metal radio show that began life on Hamilton's student radio station Contact in the late '80s, but has spent most of its life on The Rock.
In all that time, a metal band has never once won the 'best rock album' category. Shihad have picked up a few, but only after smoothing off the rough, industrial edges that typified their early work, and groups such as Blindspott and err, Push Push have been acknowledged with various minor gongs, but calling them metal really is a stretch.
"I've been asking myself for years why it hasn't been recognised," says Martin. "There's some awesome talent here, you know. New Zealand has it's own Metallica, we have our own Slayer, we have our own Motorhead, but it's hard to get these things out to people… they just can't get a foot in the door, you know?"
Sampson agrees, saying when faced with a choice between a commercially-successful rock band and a "real brutal" black or death metal band, "they're going to look at the commercial success, and a commercial band will always going to have more success than an underground band".
"It's a lot easier for more mainstream bands to get up there than it is for metal bands," she says. "Metal is kind of ignored by the music industry."
AWARD JUST FOR 'BOGANS'?
But just like in any other music clique, not everyone's heeding the call of Ktulu.
Promoter Gareth Craze describes himself as a bit of a "go-to guy" for Kiwi metal bands, and says having a dedicated metal award at the VNZMAs won't actually achieve anything because the bands that deserve recognition won't get a look-in.
"I don't think any of the bands that are well underneath the average mainstream listener's radar, but maybe out touring Europe or America, or releasing albums on overseas labels – bands like Ulcerate, Dawn of Azazel, bands like that – there wouldn't be anything in for them in such an awards set up, and that would suck," says Craze.
His fears the award would just end up going to metal bands who appeal to the lowest common denominator, further cementing the genre's "bogan" image.
I discussed with Craze the relative mainstream success of Kiwi metal bands 8 Foot Sativa and Blindspott about seven or eight years back, and he said the former were a "flash in the pan" – but had his respect – and the latter, not even a metal band at all.
"The style and the albums that rose [8 Foot Sativa] to prominence, and brought them into the mainstream sphere weren't particularly ambitious… they were playing a style of metal which I thought was quite dated, even at the time, and it was a style of metal which appealed to the more common bogan denominator element within metal.
"I think that's the side of the coin that maybe sees some merit in having a New Zealand metal award – but Blindspott, I don’t see them as a metal band at all. They may have some slightly heavy riffs or whatever, but culturally, aesthetically, fanatically and I think sonically, they're not a metal band in any meaningful sense of the term."
He says giving the award to bands who appeal to the mainstream would "further perpetuate this notion that metal in New Zealand is just a genre for bogans and for quite unsophisticated listeners".
Craze's passion for metal is deep, but I was warned beforehand he could have a 'holier than thou' attitude towards bands he didn't think were metal enough. He turned this 'snob' tag on its head, saying he is elitist, but not in a negative way.
"I think that metal has to have a certain elitist element about it because it always has been the genre where you have to have sufficiently sophisticated tastes to actually enjoy the music.
"It is not music for everyone – and particularly a lot of the metal that's coming out of New Zealand these days, it's not like Metallica or anything like that. It's not the kind of metal that's palatable to the average Rock FM, Joe Bloggs sort of listener.
"It's actually quite brutal, it's quite intricate and it's quite technical, and I think most metal bands would be quite happy to carry that elitist tag."
Martin says Craze shouldn't be so quick to assume the judges would pick a "bogan" band, but then again, bands at the more extreme end of the metal spectrum would never be nominated anyway.
"Frankly, a lot of these extreme metal bands will just never get any sort of publicity or mainstream attention," says Martin.
"I can see where Gareth is coming from, but he's got to think that you know, his bands aren't the only ones out there. There's a lot of bands that are busting arse that are as good as Metallica or Megadeth, but they're never going to get the chance to sell records or to get popular because you know, the industry is against them, and a lot of the extreme stuff is what the industry is using as an example of why they shouldn't back heavy metal."
METAL NEEDS TO GO 'MAINSTREAM'
The creeping death of a bogan-dominated future might have stopped Craze and others from backing the petition, but Martin says metal needs to get in the moshpit with the mainstream if it's going to flourish.
"I really admire what Gareth's done for New Zealand music and metal bands and stuff, but that kind of thing, I mean, if it wasn't for that stuff becoming a bit more mainstream like it is overseas, then we wouldn't hear about these bands at all," he says.
"If we don't make it mainstream, then we're stuck in the same little rut every time, you know, we're the pariah, whereas if we do get a bit of mainstream press attention, whatever, then at least people know about it and they can check out these bands.
"But at the moment everything's been forced so far underground and because we're a small country, we just don't have the population to support a small underground thing like that, whereas overseas – I think what Gareth's getting at is that overseas it works, being a bit more underground – but I don't think we have the population to sustain that here."
Artists who make it big in New Zealand first often struggle to duplicate their success overseas (Shihad's ill-fated 'Pacifier' experience a classic case in point), unlike Kiwis who make it big overseas, who generally have no problem importing that success back home.
Metal bands are no exception, says Craze. He told me younger bands often don't realise – or care – that there's an entire world of metal fans to reach outside of New Zealand.
"What I find with the more experienced metal bands… is that they don't want to just be seen as a New Zealand metal band – they want to be seen as a metal band that happens to come from New Zealand, but who have international ambitions, and who don't want to be pegged down to one very small, relatively insignificant country, which has got an MO around music, and particularly the state influence in it, that they don't agree with, or just don't really want to be a part of in any way."
METAL'S OUTSIDER STATUS 'SPECIAL'
Metal's 'outsider' culture also makes many fans and band members wary. Craze says metal fans like the fact it's not recognised by 'The Man', and its presence on the margins of popular culture and society is what makes it special.
"It's got an element of rebellion about it, and of being the outsider… and if you chuck it in the mix with the likes of Shihad, the Checks and the Mint Chicks and all the bands that seem to dominate these awards, it loses part of its special authenticity or appeal," says Craze.
Receiving a VNZMA as New Zealand's best metal band might not just ruin a group's 'outsider' reputation and peg them as "New Zealand metal" band, says Craze, but act as a "glass ceiling" on the genre itself – because the industry would then have a reason not to consider metal alongside other genres when deciding what's best overall.
Alternative music has its own category at the VNZMAs for the first time in 2011, and pop made its debut in 2010, both without much of a fuss.
Ian Jorgensen, better known as Blink, runs the annual Camp a Low Hum music festival – a mecca of sorts for alternative and indie bands from here and abroad. I asked him if the new award meant much to the indie music community.
"It's nice to get some mainstream attention," he told me, "but I doubt anybody I know is losing sleep over not being included."
Sampson understands her petition won't be signed by every metal fan in the country, but has no concerns an award would ruin Kiwi metal.
"I do agree to some extent with the people that are against the petition – I know where they're coming from – but I don't think that any true metal fan will let metal become mainstream," she says.
"It's not a mainstream kind of music. The bands that are against it, they don't have to apply. They don't have to nominate themselves or whatever. They can still be against it, that's fine, I just think that some bands would like the opportunity."
Programming director for The Rock, Riccardo Ball, says metal would benefit from the exposure an award would provide, but doesn't think winning the award itself would hold much meaning.
"There are so many genres within the genre that I don't see it as having any real meaning,' says Ball.
"I mean, Tainted and House of Capricorn are very different bands but both come under the 'metal' banner.
"It would just end up coming down to who the 'cool kids' who vote on the awards thought was the 'coolest' and would have very little to do with talent, but that's the same for the awards in general."
It's all in the eye of the beholder though. Martin isn't so cynical – he sees an award at the VNZMAs as being a stamp of credibility for the local metal scene.
"Some of these guys in metal bands work a hell of a lot harder than some of the guys in pop bands that sit at home and deconstruct a Three Doors Down song and write in their own words and put it all back together and hello, it's a single! I don't want to name names, but there's a hell of a lot of bands out there doing that sort of thing."
Sampson says it'll help rid metal fans of the bogan stereotype.
"While they might have long hair and tattoos and everything, they're not the sort of brain-dead bogans people think they are," she says.
METAL AWARD INEVITABLE?
It could just be a matter of time until the metal militia gets its own gong, though. In the past decade, the VNZMAs have ballooned to include separate awards for genres like rock, urban, roots, and dance/electronica.
"To me, the songs I write and the songs that Gareth [Craze] writes, and the songs that 8 Foot Sativa write are just as important to our culture as anything that Tiki Taane writes," says Martin.
"We're all sort of living embodiment of New Zealanders today, therefore our music is indicative of the culture of our country. We can't lose sight of that, we can't say, 'Your music is important and it's important for our culture, but your music isn't.'
"The better part of New Zealand metal is of a very high international standard. It's very original, it's very technically proficient, and it's doing well abroad."
And some would say nothing else matters.
- Band photos kindly supplied by Augusta Grayson - www.augustaphotos.co.nz
- Click here for the full list of nominees for the 2011 VNZMAs