The British are coming? Nah, they never really went away. Whether it be the prototypical likes of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, game-changing extremists Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower and Carcass or more recent globe-straddling champions such as Architects, Bring Me The Horizon and Asking Alexandria, there’s scarcely been a moment since Tony Iommi down-tuned his guitar and changed music forever that there hasn’t been a crop of bands from his homeland proudly flying Brit-metal flag.
A half-century on, however, a new generation of artists are redefining what that label can mean.
“There’s absolutely a new wave of British heavy music on the rise: younger fans, different people who’re interested in starting bands,” Malevolence frontman Alex Taylor begins. “We don’t pigeonhole ourselves. We just make the music that we want to hear. For me, that’s always been heavy metal. It’s great to be versatile: to be able to write a soft song or a super-heavy song, a six-minute ballad or a straight-up hardcore mosh anthem. People recognize that dynamism. It resonates with them.”
With the release of their titanic third album Malicious Intent, the Sheffield savages have become figureheads for that new wave of bands. Not only have they pulled themselves by their bootstraps from relative obscurity to a place where they’ve just completed their first arena tour alongside the aforementioned Architects and enigmatic London alt-metallers Sleep Token, but they’ve also managed to transcend the tricky boundary between metal and hardcore; they’re using their music to break down the “macho British grin and bear it, Northern grit” mentality to start an overdue discussion on men’s mental health. “Being afraid to have those conversations was a very British thing for a long time,” Taylor nods. “We want to challenge that.”
Moreover, they’ve used their platform and record label MLVLTD (pronounced “Malevolated”) to champion up-and-coming peers, including Steel City brethren Rough Justice, Manchester’s Guilt Trip and Southampton extreme metallers Desolated, handing down the life lessons and support from hometown heroes While She Sleeps that helped make Malevolence what they are today.
“We’re very proud of where we’re from,” Taylor continues. “Over the past 10 years, it feels like our scene is not as strong as it once was. A lot of the bigger bands aren’t hitting the smaller towns as much anymore. We went through a phase where it seemed like we would idolize all these American bands without looking at what the U.K. had to offer. But that’s shifting right now. If someone from the U.K. latches on to a band from the U.K., it’s become almost a badge of honor. That’s to take nothing from the many American and European bands who influenced us, and of whom I’m a big fan. It’s just that the attitude these days is, ‘Let’s do it our way now — and make it even better!’”
That do-it-yourself mindset seems to have extended to every corner of the Kingdom. From Belfast death-doom crew the Crawling to Aberdeen’s blackened-speed merchant Hellripper, Glasgow tech-death tyros Godeater to horror-obsessed Liverpudlian death ’n’ rollers Video Nasties and gleefully boozy Manchester mob Pist to one-woman Bristol black-metal project Nocturne, there is a whole spectrum of breakthrough artists conjuring contrasting sounds. And that’s before we even delve into the massive London scene where everyone from Middle Eastern-influenced doomsters Lowen, high-flying stoner collective Green Lung and misanthropic sludge masters Grave Lines are plying their trade. Independent labels such as Church Road and APF are helping break new ground. World-class festivals such as Bloodstock and Damnation are purposefully spotlight rising talent.
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That level of variety and enterprise is all the more impressive given the U.K.’s super-compact configuration — about one-third the size of Texas, and covering roughly the same area as Oregon — with the vast majority of the population concentrated in the 725km stretch south from Scotland’s central belt. As an island nation, too, getting in and out is never as easy as just loading up a van and hitting the road.
Being tight-knit is no bad thing, though.
“What makes me proudest to be part of the U.K. scene is the amazing sense of community,” Heriot vocalist/guitarist Debbie Gough says, with a warmth that is at odds with her band’s soul-shuddering debut EP, Profound Morality. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody is very supportive of one another. There’s a lot of freedom to express yourself: a lot of bands allowing people to try things they normally wouldn’t, to feel things in a different way, [to create] emotive music in nontraditionally heavy styles. I don’t think there’s a criteria of who you need to be to be in a band anymore. Our culture right now is very celebratory of people who don’t fit a particular mold. People try to look after each other in music — especially women.”
Indeed, although the rise of acts such as Rolo Tomassi, Employed To Serve, Venom Prison and Svalbard over recent years has ensured that women in bands are no longer a “novelty,” it feels like invisible boundaries and glass ceilings are suddenly shattering in terms of female, nonbinary and trans representation, with excellent Manchester “doom-punks” Witch Fever, electro-oriented Brighton trio CLT DRP and Nottingham’s shadowy Underdark just three metal or metal-adjacent forces among an army rewriting the rules.
“Until 2021, I could count on one hand — maybe just two — the number of bands with women in that we’ve played with,” Gough continues. “Now it feels like every show that we play has a woman or nonbinary person. It makes it a safe space to know that there is someone else there who’s gone through the same. The more that you talk to other people in bands, the more you understand you haven’t been on your own in the things that you’ve experienced, the braver you feel to express the more feminine parts of yourself. Plus, the bands that are exciting are bands with women in them. And I’m not saying that because I am a woman; it’s just the way it is.”
Katie Davies, vocalist/guitarist for London noise fiends Pupil Slicer, whose debut full-length Mirrors was one of the highlights of 2021, hammers the point home: “There’s nothing wrong with bands full of burly dudes, but if there are women, trans or nonbinary people in the band, [it’s more obvious] that they’re nice people. I remember playing with a band ages ago who seemed nice enough, but after I came out, they blocked me on everything. When you see people the same as yourself on the scene, you feel less self-conscious. And that makes for more unique sounds. It’s about all of these individuals who mightn’t have previously had a place in the scene finding their voices!”
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That acceptance and inclusivity within the alternative scene is emblematic of a broader change, and a polarization of the British cultural identity. Online platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music and TikTok have made it easier for outsider artists to showcase their work on the world stage, but they’ve also somewhat made obsolete geographically specific scenes and, to a degree, homogenized subgenre sounds, and the old selling-points for bands “Made In Britain” — posh accents, London fashion — are simply no longer relevant. Instead, acts are defined by multiculturalism and the willingness to grapple with progressive societal reform, unjust government and an increasing isolationism that’s affecting musicians at the grass-roots level.
“What does ‘British identity’ even mean?” Djamila Azzouz of Ithaca asks, whose furious second album They Fear Us is out July 29. “All the members of my band are British, but we’re all from completely different backgrounds and walks of life. What features do the bands in this new wave of British metal share other than that they’re from the same islands? I am very proud of my band. But am I proud of being a British band? I’m not sure…”
Although they travel on the same passports, the best of the current crop share few of the flag-waving tendencies that defined the 1980s NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) outfits who’ve so long been the benchmark for Brit-metal discussion.
“Not being funny, but the original wave of British heavy metal bands from Britain were almost all white men,” Azzouz continues. “Of course they were out there waving the Union Jack around onstage. It was easy to be patriotic for them. Sure, they faced a lot of those same issues in the 1980s that we do today, but the politics of the country have changed a lot. The idea of ‘patriotism’ has become a very spicy topic. If there is a British identity, it’s no longer related to the monarchy. That flag doesn’t represent us. If you had a metal band waving around the Union Jack onstage today, they might get fucking bottled!”
That anger, frustration and socio-political unease doubtlessly fuels the fire of so much new music. Post-Brexit, post-pandemic, post-governmental piss-taking, even traditionally apolitical bands can’t help but rage against the broken machine.
“There is an underlying feeling of misery and disappear amongst people in the U.K.; the rise of far-right ideologies, lying self-serving politicians, opportunities being taken away and lives made harder by Brexit…” reckons Cage Fight guitarist James Monteith (also of Tesseract), having channeled so much of it into the bare-fist fury of his new band’s recently released self-titled debut LP. “It’s made the perfect hotbed for some really angry music to be created. The result is the current breed of new bands that are either taking these issues head-on or are more indirectly using music as a cathartic release.”
Crucially, not all of that energy manifests as angular, unfiltered rage. Where it seems a majority of the acts breaking through share much of their DNA with the death and grind scene that reached a climax in the 1990s, there are plenty of others exploring the more textural sounds of Britain’s heavy musical past — and esoteric trailblazers even further afield. London instrumental trio Mountain Caller, for instance, incorporate the influence of bands as diverse as Cult Of Luna, Elder and Radiohead into their sprawling sound. Edinburgh outfit DVNE draw heavily from the whole history of prog and post-metal. Milton Keynes duo Tuskar struck a motherlode of Mastodon/Baroness/Yob-influenced heaviness when they dropped their debut album Matriarch back in February. Rugby’s brilliant Conjurer continue to swirl suffocatingly heavy sounds into their weirdly hypnotic mire.
Few, however, have delivered anything quite as dynamically captivating as London’s Urne did with 2021’s incredible Serpent & Spirit.
“It’s about being inspired by this generation that we’re a part of while being inspired by the bands that have come 10, 20, 30, 40-plus years before us,” their vocalist/bassist Joe Nally explains. “You get these people who would never give the time of day to a band like Iron Maiden or Saxon or, in American terms, Heathen, because they’re old. But that’s like saying that you don’t like old films. You’ve got to understand where this stuff has come from. The more you find out, the more it improves your knowledge, the more that it increases your enjoyment of this music.
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“Outsiders just hear the anger and aggression, but if you go back to records like Rainbow’s Rising, Black Sabbath’s self-titled or Deep Purple’s Burn, there’s so much beauty,” Nally continues. “Urne was started to incorporate everything we love about metal. Our guitarist is called Angus, and his brother is called Ozzy. We’ve grown up dedicating our lives to metal.”
With the audience-driven directness of the United States to the west, and the fluidity and diversity of Europe to the east, the U.K. is uniquely well-positioned to more experimentally celebrate all aspects of metal’s past.
“America has what I call ‘military metal’: write a certain type of three-minute song, and there are all these radio stations who [can make it a massive success],” Nally says. “Not every American band does that, but so many do. In the U.K., it’s more about trying to make yourself stand out than trying to fit in. We follow the example of big bands like Queen, who were pushing the boundaries in a pop-rock sense where they’d do a ballad, then a rock number, then something like ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ — almost a proto-thrash number. Yes, Metallica, an American band, are one of our biggest influences, but they grew up listening to the NWOBHM!”
With today’s generation of youngsters taking their cues from this crop of bands, British metal is surely set to continue as a world leader, building further on those finely balanced foundations of uncompromising progressiveness and respectful nostalgia, righteous indignation and indomitable self-belief.
“I think that we’re in a strong position, and it’s only getting stronger,” Malevolence’s Taylor concludes. “There are so many new fans coming through, so many people who want to be in bands. I just want to be in a position to be in a place where we can help them smash down doors and prove what can be done. I mean, who would’ve ever thought a band like Malevolence would get to play arenas? But last week, we played five up and down the U.K. People said they couldn’t believe we were doing that — and neither could I. But there we were, proving that it could be done!”