Last week, Is There Anybody Out There? became the latest single to be released by Californian metal legends Machine Head. Once again, Robb Flynn has written an open wound of a track. He’s made a living from opening his stitching and bleeding on vinyl. The track mines his personal trauma for inspiration and he finds yet another rich vein to plunder and turn into a charging rhinoceros of a song.
But then something changes in the tone of the lyrics. He is no longer talking about the disillusionment and dejection of his past, he’s talking about how he feels now. Right now. Suddenly the verse takes on the present tense. The language changes from the usual lexicon discussing loneliness and isolation, and starts picking up words that are unusual to hear in traditional metal.
Specifically the word I’m talking about is racism. Now, it’s not unusual for a metal song to tackle the issues of prejudice and persecution. Iron Maiden, for instance, wrote one of their most popular tracks on the subject; Run to the Hills was a tale damning the colonisation of the American West for the suffering it brought to the Native American population. What is weird is that it talks about these themes in such frank terms, not hiding it be mythical allegory.
To give this some context, back in January Phil Anselmo of the legendary groove metal band Pantera, stood on stage at Dimebash – a concert to dedicated to the murdered guitarist of the same band – and did a Sieg Heil while shouting “White Power!” He would go on to deny that it was an act motivated by race, insisting that it was an in-joke directed at the rich, mainstream musicians backstage who were drinking white wine. Seems legit.
But one man was having none of it. Robb Flynn. In the below video the Machine Head frontman made it clear that there was not a drop of the lighter stuff in the house. He also went on to talk about how Anselmo condemned Machine Head’s third and fourth album for incorporating elements into the music and image of the band that were mainly associated with black culture. The ‘Ni**er Era’ he coarsely dubbed it. This was apparently the latest in a pattern of racist behaviours that have plagued his career.
What comes after is some of the most honest and brutal words I’ve ever heard from a musician about the community from whence he came. He’s honest about his own history with racism and the ‘N’ word. He talks about how is own disillusionment is disconnecting him with metal fans. To the point where he says that if there is a place for racism in metal, then you could count him out. Robb Flynn, the most metal mother-fucker on the planet, said count me out of metal. That statement alone shook me up enough to write about this.
It’s heart-breaking. It’s heart-breaking I’ll never hear him cover another Pantera song and its heart-breaking I’ll never be able to listen to Walk again without hearing Jack Boots march along to Dimebag’s riff. But that is the least of our worries. The biggest concern is how the hero culture in metal combines with the freedom of speech crowd to result in the most vocal part of the metal community instantly dismissing people’s concerns over Anselmo’s racism. There are those willing to give the frontman of Pantera a pass, and when you combine them with those who feel that the first amendment means hate speech should go without consequence or criticism, you get a tidal wave of toxic opinion that is influencing minds all over the comments pages and forums.
The fact that he is willing to condemn the people he has dedicated his entire professional career to, in such definitive terms, is a hell of a brave stand to take. But what impresses me the most is that he doesn’t claim that racism isn’t a metal problem, but an ‘everything problem’. That corrosive argument has been used by people up and down all areas of entertainment, business and politics. People claiming that the whitewashing in Hollywood cinema isn’t a film problem, but an ‘everything problem’. This gives people the opportunity and the excuse to ignore the issues and pass the buck to others, instead of themselves having to make the positive changes to their own little corner of the world that the rest of humanity would benefit from.
Look at the problem the videogame industry has with the lack of diversity. Anytime someone tries to bring that argument up, they are considered to be attacking the video game community, or attacking video games themselves. They will say that the discussion is nothing more than a distraction from talking about the all-important gameplay, or why should we be giving this conversation the time of day, when we could be discussing mechanics? Ultimately, the attempts to discuss the medium’s problems are met with the question of “Why should we change anything when on one else is doing it?”
Developer death threats and women being forced unceremoniously out of the industry aren’t considered real news by those who would prefer that gaming journalism exist purely as objective product review. This is where I applaud Flynn the most. He wants to sort out metal specifically. He recognises that there is a problem unique to heavy metal and it has its roots in the culture, community, consumerism and commercialisation of the genre itself. The problem of racism in heavy metal needs to be treated as a problem in heavy metal; just as uniquely as it does in Hollywood or in games.
I’m also incredibly impressed that he recognises that Black Power isn’t the same as White Power. It’s a hard thing to teach to even the most steadfast of liberals that minorities get certain privileges over white people because of the fact that they are oppressed by white people. It takes a lot of maturity to understand that. A maturity a surprisingly low number of people have.
The new single is a continuation of these themes. The original lyrics were changed post Dimebash, to engrave his opinions on cutting the racism out of his life to vinyl. They have continued to release the single using these lyrics despite the fact that it would mean that they are going to alienate the band’s audience. Flynn has spoken of the fact that in some of their most devoted territories in the South and the Mid-West their radio play will be pulled, severely damaging the band’s ability to promote and tour. It’s a massive risk the band are taking by going along with it.
The last minute change in lyrics and the circumstances surrounding them give a new poignancy to the song’s title and chorus. In a moment when Robb Flynn has had his faith shaken in the people he has spent his life catering to, he really is wondering ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ Anyone who is listening to his message, anyone just as scared as he is about where these fans are going and if speaking out might do them all real harm.
In a world where I have had some of my biggest heroes let me down, where I am scared what next thing that I love will be tainted by the shitty things that people will say or do, I was so relieved to have Robb Flynn put my faith in humanity back. Acts of bravery like this, ones that risk going against the grain of popular opinion, ones that might have real negative consequences to your life, are the ones we should be taking more often. In the past I’ve described Robb Flynn as a hero when what I really meant was ‘amazing songwriter’. Now I can say it and mean it.