This year’s Hellfest saw our nostalgia complex reach near fever pitch. In a symbolic act as perfect as it is chilling, the festival erected a towering statue of Lemmy, within which is enshrined a portion of his ashes. If once such blatant attempts by the past to annex the present were openly ridiculed – Dio’s ghoulish hologram creeping across the globe for a posthumous tour springs to mind – they are now openly championed by a culture apparently unable to escape the hierarchical edicts of its own past.
The public face of metal increasingly resembles those doomed Easter Islanders. A sophisticated and complex human organisation slowly divorcing itself from reality, cutting loose the prudential necessities of a people concerned with long term survival for the sake of obscenely elaborate dedications to posterity. Hellfest’s post Covid incarnation has now superseded Wacken as the most revered metal festival in the world. Yet even a cursory scan of its line-up will reveal no headline acts under fifteen years deep into their career, and a vast majority well over twenty years in.
Whether by ironclad financial necessity or naked narcissism, the refusal of the aged relics of our past to succumb to dignified retirement looks increasingly untenable. Fans’ willingness to entertain them – born of an obsession with the genealogy of their listening habits that towers above any interest in its teleology – is by now a default setting so habitual and pervasive as to be almost invisible. It is just what metalheads do now, and therefore a pastime beyond reproach.
Now, at one of its most significant gatherings, this culture intent on defining itself by a totalitarian memorialist drive has enshrined this monolith to stand as its public face, a clear and defiant symbol for all those peering in both now and in the future, only to find – in a manner as clear as the ghostly monuments of Easter Island – a symbol of collective divorce from realism.
People can decry this naysaying as the bitter lamentations of the left-behind, of sneering sideliners unable to cope with a culture they once understood now diverging in purpose and world view. But that’s the entire problem. The culture itself has not got away from us precisely because it has not gone anywhere at all in over twenty years. We naysayers attempt to move, discover, comment, speculate, shine a light on dark places, on pockets of futurism and the beauty in the plethora of possible worlds they evoke. The popular face of metal moves nowhere, it shores up its position by deploying increasingly gauche methods of refreshing the same set of rank ingredients, the same actors, the same shared symbols free of the unwanted jeopardy of “surprise”.
One may also wish to decry this as a needless attack on hardworking promoters and festival staff for keeping the arts alive in a post Covid world. But the simple fact is that Hellfest is not “the arts” by any reasonable definition. It is an amusement park. A safe environment in which guests are invited to submerge themselves in four decades of history in one place. A pale but necessary affirmation of pre-existing expectations for those insistent that the best is behind us, a convenience buffet of familiar symbology and cultural signifiers all digestible in one location, a postmodern carnival bizarre of history’s greatest spectral hits.
To take the analogy of antiquity’s civilisational deathcults further, we could say that the populaces of metal that are intent on getting on with the business of living, of thrusting forward into the future, attempting an existence free of the ambient demand to engage in the death-drive are increasingly starved of resources. The small to mid-sized venues they rely on to transact their cultural artefacts are closing at an alarming rate, having been starved of income and driven into debt by spiralling costs.
Equally, metal’s would be innovators are denied a platform thanks to metal’s “mainstream” press and their complicity in encasing metal in an enveloping stasis. And struggling to make their art mean something beyond highly personalised, atomised statements of individual feeling thanks to fans’ unwillingness – beyond a populous too small to affect meaningful change – to accept anything that refuses to submit to their pre-existing expectations.
And overseeing it all is the gargantuan, all seeing eye of Lemmy Kilmister. A name once interchangeable with authenticity, with being true to oneself, and a refusal to buckle under pressure to change with the times. Now recast as steel obelisk. Motorhead’s synonymity with musical fixity, of denying themselves a future or a past has now become a perverted vision of a culture that has nothing meaningful to say about the world. A holiday camp for the deluded and deranged, convinced of their own relevance, yet blind to their utterly depleted and caricatured understanding of the adversarial and affirmational societal flashpoints culture should engage with in order to retain any lasting value.