Mostly, the 2011 documentary Slow Southern Steel perpetuates a myth. Billed as "a film about heavy music in the modern American South, as told by the very people who have created this music," Slow Southern Steel suggests that any heavy band from the South can be immediately identified by the way they sound. "They beat the shit out of you," summarizes Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, describing that Southern sound. "It's just one fucking gigantic, massive riff that steps on you the whole night and beats you up till they're done."
Keying on interviews with bands such as Eyehategod, Down and Jucifer, the documentary largely omits artists who don't fit its thesis, choosing to mirror the prevailing critical discourse on heavy metal in the South: That is, Southern metal exists in a sort of backwoods vacuum, wholly defined by the slow and swampy sludge metal of bands from New Orleans (Eyehategod, Thou, Down), Savannah, Ga. (Kylesa, Black Tusk, Baroness) and Eastern North Carolina (Weedeater, Buzzov•en, Sourvein).
But for more than a decade, North Carolina has served as the home to another nationally recognized metal scene. In its compositional complexity and obvious European influences, metalcore counters the perceptions of Southern heaviness cast by the slow, distortion-encrusted riffs of their sludge-loving peers. The most prominent example, Between The Buried And Me, is one of North Carolina's most commercially successful metal bands and one entirely unencumbered by the baggage of Southern metal. Their latest, last year's expansive and indulgent The Parallax II: Future Sequence, debuted at No. 22 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart. While the discussion of heavy music in the South has favored doom metal's repetitious crawl, BTBAM has grown increasingly nimble and complex, favoring prog and fusion influences over ancient blues and Black Sabbath.
What's more, BTBAM's multifaceted prog-metal has helped forge its own metal vanguard in the South. Consider Escher, a young Raleigh quintet that is hardly the first or last band to cite Between The Buried And Me as an influence, but perhaps the least apologetic. In its listing for Escher's Jan. 10 gig, The Berkeley Cafe calendar describes the band as "BTBAM covers in a completely original way."
Escher's bassist, 19-year-old Cody Rogers, laughs off the tongue-in-cheek tagline, attributing it to the show's organizer, Wings Denied guitarist Zach Dresher. Still, the comparisons stand, enough that, when Escher tagged its Bandcamp page with the names of its influences, they listed Between The Buried And Me second, just behind extreme Swedes Meshuggah.
"If you listen to any of our material, the first thing that comes to mind is pretty much always BTBAM," Rogers concedes. "It's pretty obviously our biggest influence, but we try to walk the line between showing that off and not sounding too much like them."
BTBAM formed in 2000, joining bands like Botch, Coalesce and The Dillinger Escape Plan in shaping a technically dexterous fusion of hardcore, metal and prog-rock. Locally, other bands constituted a strong first wave of metalcore: Greensboro's grind-leaning Killwhitneydead, Wilmington's classic-rock informed He Is Legend and Winston-Salem's Swedish death metal-loving Glass Casket. Members of blackened crust band Young And In The Way cut their teeth in metalcore outfit A Closing Skyline. In the early years of the new millennium, marquee metalcore acts such as Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall and Underoath earned label attention and notched significant sales figures.
Adam Cody, the former lead singer of Glass Casket and current vocalist for Charlotte death metallers Wretched, witnessed the subgenre's rise and evolution.
"A lot of the bands I grew up watching kind of pioneered some of the metalcore stages, and it just rubbed off on everybody," he remembers. "A lot of the bands we played with were pretty much doing just breakdowns and punk beats and stuff like that. Eventually, people started to bring a lot more melody in and harmonizing with each other. It just got a lot more musical."
Between The Buried And Me led that pack, incorporating clean tones and expansive melodies, taking cues from Mike Patton's eclecticism and, more obviously, courting comparisons to prog-rock icons like Gentle Giant and King Crimson.
For the indie-centric music press, prog is usually reserved for guilty pleasures or punchlines, if it's mentioned at all. The self-conscious artiness and indulgent musicianship of prog served, after all, as a reactionary impetus for punk and, later, indie rock. The bands featured in Slow Southern Steel cite first-wave hardcore bands like Black Flag as pivotal influences. But with members barely in their 30s, it's unlikely that BTBAM's musicians—much less their younger fans—had many fond memories of early-'80s VFW Hall gigs. For the members of Escher, whose ages range from 17 to 24, Between The Buried And Me's career has traced their own formative years.
"I didn't come up through punk and then move on to hardcore," Rogers explains. "I distinctly remember when I was in eighth grade, a friend of mine gave me his whole CD case and the first few I listened to were an Underoath CD and Alaska by BTBAM. They're really who brought me into metal. I don't think I've ever listened to Corrosion of Conformity or anything. BTBAM really hit it off for me."
Where the sludgier end of Southern metal's spectrum retains hardcore's confrontational aesthetic, acts including Between The Buried And Me instead veered between precise blasts of death metal and spacious prog. Likewise, the singers volleyed guttural growls with emotive singing. It mostly eschewed the visual trappings of redneck stereotypes, trading the beards and beer cans for a comparatively clean-cut and unassuming aesthetic. Christian rock even made its inroads in metalcore, boosting the notoriety of bands like As I Lay Dying and Underoath.
For their part, Between The Buried And Me focused more on challenging their audiences musically than morally, stretching their songs into marathons and bringing new, unlikely influences to the table. Colors, BTBAM's wildly divergent 2007 LP, was a modest commercial success. It logged first-week sales of more than 12,000 units and debuted at No. 57 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. In terms of influence, Colors was a breakthrough. Former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy called Colors his favorite album of the year. Shawn Milke, frontman of the successful Raleigh-based band Alesana, called Colors one of his favorites of the past decade.
For Rogers, it meant even more: "They were my favorite band when Colors came out. I remember hearing it for the first time, and it was like a musical epiphany."
If nothing else, the success and influence of Between The Buried And Me—and, more broadly, North Carolina metalcore—proves that, like the region itself, metal in the South is harder to define than its stereotypes and presuppositions. That is, it's prog-rock-complex, not punk-rock-simplistic.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No Dixie."