Like any Southern city too big to be ignored but too small to be included on a globe where New Orleans and Atlanta have more prominence, Birmingham’s music scene has often been seen by outsiders as the armpit rest stop between its bigger neighbors. Despite, or in spite of, the even more stigmatized subgenres — such as heavy metal and all its associations in hardcore, punk, post-something or other, etc. — have survived and thrived in Birmingham, gaining notice not only on a local scale but, in some cases, an international one as well.
The city is no stranger to the genre that your parents likely hated back in the day or, if you were really special, was name-dropped by your preacher every other Sunday as the engineers operating the fast track to the hottest parts of hell. To that end and in the spirit of metal, those of us who grew up in that era (circa 1980s) thankfully rebelled, forming our own bands, our own fan culture and a sense of unwavering local pride in the fact that we weren’t doomed to the perpetuity of rambling off a list of country music artists because, well, that seems kind of par for the course.
Things change, though, and those of us who had to hide our Cannibal Corpse tapes under the bed — well, we’ve all grown up, some of us even married, and a few, despite our youthful refusal to even consider the idea, have reproduced our own little metalheads. Birmingham has had its more well known heavy bands such as Maylene and the Sons of Disaster or Mastodon with its lumberjack guitar god person Brent Hinds, and while those and other bands’ successes are nothing to be dismissed, local heavy/experimental groups are continuing to expand the creative mind and consciousness of the city’s extreme music scene.
Be it Null’s post-punk doom hybrid (featuring Carter Wilson of the critically acclaimed Coliseum on vocals) or blackened death metal group Ectovoid, whose most recent release garnered praise in Decibel Magazine, one of the genre’s most respected and widely circulated publications — both bands are attracting a significant amount of attention well outside the greater Birmingham area alongside other outstanding groups like the post-metal/progressive-minded Great Gospel, the low-end doom and sludge of Hexxus and D.R.O.V.E.S with their seething brand of post-punk.
One of the Birmingham heavy metal scene’s greatest allies has been its tight-knit-to-the-point-of-cult-status venues. It only takes a brief rundown of upcoming shows to see that metal acts aren’t just playing Memaw’s basement or the Blount County Hog Run. Venues like Iron City and Saturn have hosted the likes of Danzig, the Melvins, Earth, Slayer, Marilyn Manson, and GWAR, just to name a few. While most of those, especially Manson, have had their fair share of radio time, many of their well-known songs are cherry picked as “friendly” for audiences (as it’s safe to assume that while your local radio station might be cool with playing Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” they likely won’t be playing “Dead Skin Mask” anytime soon).
While larger venues are thankfully capable of bringing in the city’s more established and well-known groups, the heavy metal heart of Birmingham has and will always belong to the grassroots, word-of-mouth efforts of its fans whose dedication and loyalty to the music we love has, in true metal fashion, never been swayed by popular idealisms. Venues such as Saturn, Zydeco, The Spring Street Firehouse and others continue to thrive because they understand that a) people have, believe it or not, diverse musical tastes and b) the aforementioned diverse music tastes make for more shows (which means more money).
The long-held local notion that heavy metal or extreme music will always be limited to venues where the cover charge is a high-five is as mythical as a Dio lyric. Birmingham’s homegrown venues have been a large part of that shift with the gone-but-not-forgotten Bottletree serving as one of the city’s first venues to represent the musical diversity of audiences who are more than cool with seeing Beach House one night and then saddling up for Melvins the next. Simply put, this isn’t your parents’ metal scene anymore.
In the social media age, it’s not a far-fetched argument to say that no other genre of music has been propelled even further into the spotlight than heavy metal. The reason is simple: it’s not the size of the fan base, it’s the size of the effort the fan base is willing to put forward to bring the bands/shows here instead of being resigned to make the I-20 haul to Atlanta. Those days are long gone for heavy metal in Birmingham, and while it might be easier to chalk it up to population or popularity, the fact remains that the Steel City continues to live up to its name, keeping it hard and heavy as hell.
Jonathan K. Dick is a contributing writer for Weld and has written for publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR, The A.V. Club and Pitchfork. He also ran the heavy metal blog Steel for Brains from 2012 to 2015.