Metal missionaries. Local metal community boosters. These are tags that Kelly Melburg and Jen Lorenski embrace. Their site, Moshpit Nation
, is the flagship for a local social media revolution among Michigan metal fans, featuring show listings for lower Michigan.
In 2011, web developer Jen Lorenski found herself having a hard time finding a metal show in Grand Rapids -- or anywhere else in Michigan. She partnered with rabid metalhead Melburg and the two developed Moshpit Nation as a resource for their fellow metal enthusiasts.
Moshpit Nation includes national arena acts as well as local groups appearing in dive bars. The site divides listings between East and West Michigan, with target cities including Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Detroit, and Flint. There is a Facebook fan page for each city, and Lorenski credits this for increasing attendance at local shows.
Two years in, Moshpit Nation has become a staple of the local metal scene. They set up merch booths at larger shows or shows they sponsor, and use these booths to rep local acts and sell T-shirts and stickers.
"Kelly and I go to as many shows as humanly possible," says Lorenski. "The key in West Michigan has been going out to shows and talking to people and spreading the word that way."
Metal's rough edges and garrulousness may fool one into thinking that it would clash with Grand Rapids' perceived conservatism. Metal is, after all, the devil's music, and many metalheads have noticed that Grand Rapids lacks classic death metal and black metal, instead being dominated by a safer metal-core or Mastodon-style hipster sludge metal.
Meanwhile, Lansing has a healthy black metal scene, Muskegon's scene is, according to Melburg, "(expletive) crazy," and Detroit has long been a center for a variety of extreme metal. So, does the perceived conservative climate affect our metal scene? Melburg says yes and no.
“It does in the fact that it's hard to get us a venue (that consistently books metal), but I think (because) so many people are raised so conservatively and religiously here, that they tend to gravitate towards darker things," Melburg says. "I don't know why."
Grand Rapids isn't alone. The local metal resurgence reflects a nationwide trend in the mainstream acceptance of heavy metal. The first decade of this century saw metal diversifying and maturing, garnering acceptance by mainstream critics. Labels like Southern Lord
released works from bands like Sunn O))), whose arty sludge appealed to highbrow art snobs and stoners alike. The band’s minimalist approach to the art of the riff has been compared to composers like John Cage. The genre's diversity and creativity has led to the cultivation of a type of fan as picky and discriminating as any jazz aficionado.
Even NPR has gotten in on the act. Recently, ultra obscure black metal band Aksumite was featured on their 2012 Top Ten Metal
releases list. Aksumite's label, Colloquial Sound Recordings
, a local and very small indie label that focuses on cassette releases, saw a credible benefit from the exposure. This could been seen as boon for the whole local scene, but label owner and Grand Rapidian Damien Master is fittingly iconoclastic about the hubbub.
“I love Grand Rapids," he says. "I work at Vertigo Music. I have the opportunity to move anywhere in the country or the world that I want and I like it here. But, we have nothing to do with Grand Rapids."
Master says that his bands are a serious art, not a joke and not a hobby. Colloquial’s roster, which also includes bands like This Station of Life and A Pregnant Lite, have a unique sound that is a combination of highbrow art and gritty lo-fi blackened punk, a defiant fringe taste. But it is an aesthetic Master seeks outs, encourages, and cultivates right here in West Michigan.
"I am completely not interested in rehashing Darkthrone, which it seems 90 percent of black metal bands are doing," Master says. "My musical tastes are pretty diverse... so I want to incorporate some of that. We do try to be a little highbrow about it."
According to Vertigo Music
's Herm Baker, metal of the highbrow and knucklehead varieties has been pretty good to Grand Rapids' independent record store. He says it is the most solid genre of music they sell at the store.
"It used to be punk, but it seems the punk thing has kind of died off a bit," Baker says. "The metal thing continues to grow. A lot of it is because metal has shot off into all kinds of different directions. For us, it's all the small labels like Seasons of Mist and Southern Lord -- labels like that are really the ones that are selling here. And we have people coming from all over Michigan to buy this stuff up."
MLive music and film critic, MC of Heavweights (local metal battle of the bands), and part-time Vertigo employee John Serba is an unapologetic, old school metalhead who is passionate about bands both mainstream and obscure, but mostly of the aforementioned evil variety. Also a host of FOX 101.3's Metal At Midnight, Serba is in the unique position to share his discriminating tastes with a large audience. While not everything he sees in the local scene appeals to him, one band in particular does stand out.
"A lot of the bands that play at the Heavyweights at the Intersection are doing a metalcore thing -- a screamo thing -- not necessarily where my tastes lie. They do it well," he says. "I think one of the standout bands is Flood The Desert. They can kind of appeal to a cross generational thing."
He explains further, "There are Intersection bands (metal-core, American metal) and there are Pyramid Scheme bands (hipster metal, sludge metal, prog metal) -- whether it is a local or a national band. Flood The Desert can play both venues.”
Prog sludgsters Flood The Desert
recently came in second at this year's recent Heavyweights competition, and also had the opportunity to open for thrash legend Testament. Drummer Jeremy Hyde says they're one band that's benefitted from Moshpit Nation's boosterism.
"I honestly don't know if we'd have nearly as big of a following as we do without their support," he says. "They do everything within their power to support and promote all the local metal/hard rock acts, be it an upcoming show, music video, or your new album. What's great is that they don't stop at the online promotion; they're super-active, actually attending the shows as well. I think they're bringing back a sense of community that was somewhat lost in recent years."
According to Serba, there are divisions in the scene still, but this is a natural occurrence.
“I think that's what happens when metal reaches its forties. The idea can apply to the local scene as well. And you're going to have some splintering like that. I don't think it was as prevalent 13 or 14 years ago, when the heavyweights started, when you had an early screamo band like Kamilla, and then you had these old school thrash guys like Enemy and DieCraft. Those were cool bands, those appealed to my ear, and they were all in the same scene.”
Regardless of the genres, Jen Lorenski thinks that metal will always have a place here, and intends on being very busy in the coming months by putting on shows regularly and growing the metalhead community.
"A lot of the things that are happening around Grand Rapids are art-based, and are small, independent, growth-based things. Music should be an important part of that, and all different kinds of music. Just because it's heavy, aggressive music doesn't mean that its violent -- heavy music needs to have a place in the community.
Want more local metal? Here's some Moshpit Nation favorites: Morning Wolf, Genocya, Flood The Desert, Maroon's Dagon, Drawing Down The Moon, The Severed Process, Sin Theorem.
See the entire history of metal, and the evolution of its subgenres, here
Photography by Adam Bird