Brewer Metal

1000 words to explain a meme

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I saw this meme on both instagram and twitter and it felt true both times. Group of three guys, bearded, holding beers laughing it up about Mastodon, Baroness, and High on Fire.

This image of guy with a particular interest in, say, Mastodon, an interest that likely bloomed out to include bands associated with them, existed as a loose concept in a lot of heavy music fans’ heads, I’d guess. But I can’t recall a single conversation where I’ve walked with a succinct phrase for what it was we were talking about. And then this meme comes along and says it better than any hyper-hyphenated sub genre designation could. 

That doesn’t mean that I’m not above trying. While hammering down a catch all term with Black Metal & Brews based on Baroness singer John Baizley, whose painting skills were in high demand for album covers in this scene, I saw this tweet:

This really nails it. First, drawing the naming connection from stoner metal marks the connection between the two sounds while also differentiating them. Second, it captures the spirit of the meme to a tee. Instead of trying to describe the common sound of these bands, they worked backwards from a demographic.

Just so we’re clear, we’re not talking specifically about the music played by or listened to by people that brew beer. This imagined brewer metalhead is a loose amalgamation of interests and tendencies. Variations of this vague type of guy are all over the place, but none of them would be just this stereotype. I know that may seem like an obvious point, but I think this caveat helps us steer clear of a marketing mindset common to these sorts of “Type Guy” essays.

With that in mind, the brewer metal fan you are thinking of is probably in their thirties, has strong opinions on craft beer, either loves IPAs or scoffs at people who love IPAs, wears flannel, smokes weed but by now probably vapes it, might throw axes for fun, might like hockey, might collect vinyl, etc.

It is no surprise that this impression of a person is so ubiquitous to heavy music fans. The bands that comprise this makeshift genre were poised to become the face of 21st century heavy metal a decade ago. Mastodon, through a relentless touring schedule and a crossover appeal with the indie rock crowd, were easily the biggest name of the scene. Baroness, who also emerged from Savannah, Georgia, went from being a critical favorite to part of the Q Management roster. The success of these two, along with less popular but no less beloved bands like Kylesa and Black Tusk, rippled out into the rest of American heavy metal. Speaking anecdotally, sifting through promo emails each day would always turn up at least one “FFO: Mastodon, Intronaut, Baroness.” The brewer metal sound and look was everywhere.

And yet, if global domination was on the table, the scene didn’t reach its potential apex. Mastodon are still huge, but excitement around their new material has cooled off significantly. Baroness through no fault of their own had their career derailed by a tragic van accident right when they were about to crack through into the big leagues. They’re still a terrific live act (not something that most would say about Mastodon if we’re being honest) but their last two records didn’t connect with their audience. Kylesa broke up years ago. High on Fire, never a band that had a shot at mainstream success, have aged into an “old reliable” role for metal lifers.

So why was this stuff so popular? I think brewer metal’s appeal was it’s balance between traditionalism and progressivism, rawness and polish, underground authenticity and mainstream populism. Unlike the metalcore and NWOAHM bands popular around the same time, brewer metal bands had a clear lineage to a 70s hard rock sound that had largely been excised from heavy music after the 1990s. Nothing about these bands sounded mechanized or digital (except, if we’re being saucy, the pitch correction on their clean vocals). Their songs, even the poppiest of them, had an ambling jam quality to them suggesting that they were the product of four musicians in a room rather than a producer at a DAW. 

Brewer metal captured the idealized version of metal’s past, filled with colorful album art and heady concepts, without sounding strictly like a rehash of older bands. The genre’s origins in the American south also gave it a unique twist. Hearing banjos or country-inspired vocal harmonies next to monster guitar riffs felt surprising but also a natural extension of southern rock’s influence on heavy metal. Baizley’s art hammered this home, taking the classic skulls & babes metal art style and mixing it with psychedelic flora that recalled the overgrown look of the south east.

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I want to take a quick detour to note that while brewer metal was becoming codified, there was a parallel growth of what I’d like to call “southern yuppie” aesthetics sweeping through American culture. I’m talking about the mason jars, the string lights, the sudden inexplicable popularity of “folk” bands wearing suspenders and stomping their way through singalong choruses. Men with beards and wide brimmed hats. Everything shot like B-roll from a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Then and now, this whole aesthetic gives me the willies. Maybe it’s just my urbanized Brooklyn brain but all this stuff veers way too close to antebellum nostalgia for me. My hope is that the stadium folk sound and all its trappings will appear as inexplicable to future music nerds as the 90s swing revival was for me.

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These same qualities put a cap on the genre’s success however. The southern rock elements reduced to empty signifiers, the loose song structures too forgiving of aimless writing, and the attempts at writing classic rock hooks ended up too close to cringey post-grunge bellowing. Even the genre’s distinctive American-ness (although I’m sure there are Canadian bands that fit into this aesthetic, every version of Americana has The Band it deserves) held it back from crossing over into a global metal market. In this light, maybe brewer metal did reach its potential. God knows how many metal scenes have come and gone without a meme to their name.

That we can even point to brewer metal as being a definable thing proves that it is inert, codified and dead. What can be meme’d can be packaged and sold but not truly lived. The energy has moved elsewhere. RIP brewer metal, you had a good run.