The South Is On Fire: On Metalcore and How Norma Jean Made Me Learn to Re-Love the Mosh Part

I’ve reminisced a couple times as of late with some friends of mine about the early-aughts days of MTV2. When I was in elementary school and early middle school, MTV2 became one of the most important factors in my music discovery. Their double-decade-spanning Headbangers Ball program was still in its 90-minute format, but updated with metal bands of the current day. I remember distinctly, in one night I was introduced to Killswitch Engage, Between The Buried And Me, and Avenged Sevenfold. The channel and Headbangers Ball specifically at that time were instrumental in my fascination and obsession with heavy music. One of the bands I recall being featured was Norma Jean, and they were playing one of the songs off of their album at the time, Redeemer. I made my dad take me to Best Buy a few days later so I could buy the CD with my allowance. I was entranced by the cover art, an odd painting of a crow pecking at the head of a young child, the back cover outlined in mismatched typesets with song titles like ‘The End Of All Things Will Be Televised’ and ‘The Longest Lasting Statement.’ October 3 of this year will mark the ten-year anniversary of that album, which means I’ve been listening to Norma Jean for a decade, which is insane to me. After almost ten years of following the band, I finally got the opportunity to witness them live last week at one of my favorite Chicago venues, Beat Kitchen alongside modern metalcore favorite He Is Legend.

While I had an absolute blast at the concert, and I thought Norma Jean performed particularly well, this is going to be less of a concert review as it is going to be an analysis of the modern hardcore mosh pit. Norma Jean fall under the ‘metalcore’ subgenre, which make some recoil, and some celebrate, depending on who you ask. The issue with metalcore is the same with most genres – it has come to define so many different elements. It originally comes from the literal combination of the words ‘metal’ and ‘hardcore,’ or alternatively referred to as ‘metallic hardcore.’ Aggressive bands from the ‘90s like Earth Crisis, Merauder, and Deadguy fall under the metalcore umbrella, most closely associated with the ‘metallic hardcore’ phrasing. You also have groups like Converge, Botch, and The Dillinger Escape Plan, who fall into a sub-subgenre of metalcore that becomes ‘mathcore,’ in reference to the complicated guitar patterns and often-changing time signatures within their songs (similar to that of the more conventional, ‘math rock’). In the early 2000s, metalcore started being used as a descriptor of bands incorporating clean singing into the equation, like Shadows Fall, Eighteen Visions, and Atreyu. Currently, we’re reaching a point in metalcore where some bands are embracing the older, more genuine meaning of it like Old Wounds and Code Orange. On the other side are bands that are more closely associated to the singing aspect of it with some added breakdown elements, most notably somewhat cringeworthy names like The Devil Wears Prada and Asking Alexandria. To me, Norma Jean falls into the category of a group embracing the ‘classic’ sounds of metalcore with their own modern twist on it. As Patrick Kindlon of Self Defense Family will state, Norma Jean’s 2002 debut album Bless The Martyr And Kill The Child is “the pinnacle of mosh metal.” However metal you consider a band like Norma Jean to be, you can’t deny the influence of ‘80s and ‘90s straightforward hardcore music in their sound. So, what separates a metal mosh pit from a hardcore mosh pit? A few key things: the dudes aren’t as aggro, the vocalists aren’t as determined to ensue audience turmoil, and most notably, the violence is significantly less.

Most people on the outside of heavy and aggressive music carry the assumption that all mosh pits are violent. As someone who’s been attending metal and hardcore shows since middle school, I consider myself to have authority on the subject and can say for certain that this is not the case. What I’m going to talk about is a trend that I’m noticing more and more every time I end up at a hardcore concert.

The initial wave of hardcore was not based in violence. It was based in aggression, rebellion, and common issues. There came to be a time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when hardcore mosh pits started to become circles of violence. Harley Flannagan of hardcore heavyweights Cro-Mags details in a 1991 VHS documentary Live In N.Y.C. that audiences grew more and more violent over time, and that when Cro-Mags were in their earliest stages, their pits were not nearly as dangerous as they became later on in their career. It then began to seem like in the latter part of the ‘90s and early 2000s, mosh pit violence had lessened. Out of all the metal concerts I went to as a kid, I would watch mosh pits go down in a fun, aggressive manner, but I was never concerned that anyone there was getting harmed. In eighth grade I saw Exodus at House Of Blues and Kreator at Bottom Lounge, was in the pits for both of them, and didn’t come out with anything more than a couple of bruises. Even a band like Slayer, who I’ve seen twice and is often associated with violent pits, never reached anything further then fans voluntarily letting their bodies get thrashed around. That’s the key: volunteering.

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Photo via L. Mounts

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen an abundance of hardcore shows in Chicago, and I’m not exactly sure what changed, but the mosh pits have become increasingly less fun to be a part of. In reality, there’s not even really a pit anymore. The room divides in the middle, with a third of the crowd on the left side, a third on the right, and a third in the back. Then, whenever a band reaches a slow, grooving part of a song, kids start flying across the floor. It’s a mix of hardcore dancing, windmilling their arms, punching the ground, etcetera. However, with some of the heavier bands that fall into the ‘beatdown’ subgenre of hardcore like Harm’s Way and the aforementioned Code Orange, fans seem to think it’s okay to stomp back and forth across the venue floor, and proceed to imitate punching down on spectators on the sides. The problem is that they don’t know when to stop imitating and they become victims of the term ‘crowdkilling,’ used to describe moshers who go out of their way to inflict pain on other concert patrons. I see it multiple times at every hardcore show I attend, and more often than not it’s the same one to three guys, wearing Trapped Under Ice tank tops and camo cargo shorts. You can spot them instantly. Whenever I watch them, it seems like one of two things are happening: either they need to prove to the room that they are the most aggressive, badass, tough dudes in the club, or that their idea of fun is beating down on people who are just trying to enjoy the music. If you’re a heavy music fan, you’re bound to have seen this happen at least once in a concert setting.

Because Norma Jean have roots in hardcore, I was very concerned that I was going to see this happen again, that when they hit their breakdown passages, these types of dudes were going to come out of the woodwork from nowhere and come stomping down into and onto the crowd. But here’s what I didn’t realize: a Norma Jean crowd is far more a metal crowd than a hardcore crowd. And metal crowds are extremely polite and caring when it comes to moshing. I watched the first half of the concert from the back, and then I noticed that nobody was getting injured, everyone was having a good time, and for the first time in years, I got right up close to the Beat Kitchen stage and moshed, and it was one of the most fun pits I’ve been a part of in recent memory. Nobody was trying to hurt each other, nobody was trying to prove that they were a ‘pit warrior’ (as my friend Teddy and I call them), it was just a bunch of kids, enjoying the music, and having a good time, and this is how I’ve always thought mosh pits should be. I’ve said this many times before, but violence is not the equivalent of aggression. Feelings of anger and rage are completely valid and oftentimes healthy to express, and accepted at a heavy music concert. But the resurgence of violence in hardcore mosh pits is no longer interesting or thrilling, it is simply annoying and genuinely dangerous. And so I send out my most heartfelt thanks to the members of Norma Jean, for making me fall back in love with the mosh pit, and hopefully one day the rest of the current bands will follow in their footsteps.

Written by L. Mounts

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