Australian Underground Metal The Dark Side of Australia?
A balmy spring night and a bunch of longhaired guys, some with impressive beards, and a couple of ladies are chilling in a beer garden. Loud music, muted by the pub's soundproof walls, is filling the air. First beers are ordered. Most of the guys are wearing jeans vests with band patches and t-shirts of local bands. This is a typical scene from Sydney's Metal Underground, where Australian underground bands perform at local shows every Friday and Saturday.
However, the Metal Underground is more than that. If you take a closer look, two main groups stand out amongst all the players: the fans and the bands. The fans (or metalheads) want to be a part of the underground, whereas for many (though not all!) bands the underground is just a starting point – with the aim to make their breakthrough and become internationally known one day. For the former, underground metal is a kind of lifestyle; for the latter, it's a pathway to success or at least the hope of success.
Wanting to be differentSimilar to other underground scenes, fans are connected by their desire for a space in which they can be different from others together. Duncan Therkildsen Jones is just finishing his Master's in musicology and wrote his thesis about Sydney's metal scene. "I think the Sydney scene is predicated upon the notion of underground status," Duncan explains and adds that Sydney's metal scene deliberately tries not to follow mainstream ideas, musical styles and ideologies. He also believes that "it’s really important to have this space available, and in many ways what you can see reflected in the Sydney shows is a vestigial spark of punk, where the autonomy and independence of the scene is considered a serious goal."
Fatigue at Metal United Down Under Sydney 2014 | © Michael Lüders Michael Lüders is the founder of an initiative called Metal United Down Under (MUDU). MUDU consists of underground shows in ten to 15 Australian cities, all taking place on the same day under a joint banner. "The event aims to give metalheads a sense of a connection, but it also offers underground bands a platform for exposure," Michael explains. In 2016, a total of 95 bands played under the MUDU banner, after a record 131 in 2015. Like master student Duncan, Michael considers the underground an important part of the Australian metal scene because it's where new bands and the music itself evolve. "Due to Australia's low population density, the Australian metal scene overall is not as large as in Europe or the US. The underground keeps the domestic metal scene alive. The underground bands continue to develop the music. The metalheads listen to it and support it if they like what they hear – they go see the shows, buy the CDs and t-shirts and promote the band's name on Facebook," Michael explains.
The Road To SuccessA number of bands just enjoy playing without expecting to hit it big. Yet many bands are looking for their breakthrough, and the underground allows them to gain a fan base and a level of recognition. However, Australia's size, its low population density and its distance from other countries are barriers to success and most bands remain part of the underground. Stu McGill plays the guitar for the power metal band Silent Knight and organises the Stormrider metal festival in Perth, the world's most isolated major city. He believes drive is the most important characteristic of Australian metal bands: "Australia is so far away from anywhere else in the world, bands need to have an incredible drive to succeed." Stu believes that Australian bands are amongst the hardest working in the world. His own band has already made some headway – they have a name in the scene by now, and a well-produced album to boot. In the (northern) summer of 2017, they will travel to Germany and play at the Headbangers Festival in Brande-Hörnerkirchen. Like most aspiring Australian bands, Silent Knight started out playing in South-East Asia and are now taking the leap to Europe.
Duncan, singer of Sydney band Fenrir | © Michael Lüders However, the distance from other countries isn't the only thing that makes a breakthrough difficult for Australian bands. Neil 'Steel' Wilson, a veteran of the scene, lead singer of the bands Tyrant and Roadkill and host of the radio show Killawatts, deplores the fact that the Australian music industry tends to focus on supporting US bands at the expense of Australian bands. "There's plenty of bands but the industry seems hell-bent on supporting every US band that comes along, so the Australian bands simply don't get the support today," Neil explains. He adds that while a few bands have big followings, the majority of bands fight to receive any attention at all – with regards to the media, radio airplay or gaining the attention of booking agents and promoters. It's hard to get ahead without the right connections. Silent Knight guitarist Stu also points to the Australian music industry's ARIA Awards: "The mainstream media give very little to no attention to Australian metal, yet most Australian metal bands would blow any other act away."
Band or fan, breakthrough or not, whoever belongs to the Australian underground stands for metal. And metal creates connections. Worldwide.