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Death metal on life support

Outside the House of Blues in Downtown Disney on March 21, it was obvious that some sort of special event about to occur. It isn’t every day you go to a place like that and see a flood of long hair and black shirts segregated from tourists wearing fanny packs and cheap sunglasses.

The tourists were only part of the reason why the feeling was awkward, though. We weren’t all waiting on the corner of 7th Avenue and 15th Street in Ybor in front of the Masquerade, and once inside, the smell of smoke was virtually nonexistent. It wasn’t the kind of venue we were accustomed to. After all, we were on Disney property, waiting in line for the doors to open for the Swedish metal quintet Opeth.

A long time ago, Tampa was bustling with musical creativity and had a strong heavy metal scene. Bands like Obituary, Death, Six Feet Under and Deicide were considered gods of the Tampa metal scene and held international influence. But the scene has taken a turn in the opposite direction.

“The scene 15 years ago was riding the crest of the development of death metal,” WMNF DJ Lothax said. “Bands of the time were either already great or on their way to greatness. Fan interest bordered on rabid, making the ‘death metal capital’ name well deserved.”

Every so often, Cacophony: The Metal Underground, a radio show hosted by Lothax every Sunday on WMNF, organizes shows in various parts of the Tampa Bay area in an attempt to provide support for WMNF and local bands. He said in 2004, the attendance at these shows averaged about 60 people, whereas now the average turnout is about 45 people.

So how did the scene dissipate so rapidly? A fair amount of blame can be placed on any number of causes: the lack of good venues, the changing of tastes or your general run-of-the-mill apathy.

Before Feb. 25 of this year, the majority of local and national metal shows were held at the Masquerade. With its closing, shows for many Tampa residents became more inconvenient, since they now had to travel across the bay to the State Theatre or all the way to Orlando to the House of Blues. The chance is slim for a local band to have a decent attendance at any of these places.

Terry Butler (Six Feet Under, Death) believes that this change over the years has a lot to do with its aging audience.

“The scene was cool back then – all the 15-year-old kids went to shows” he said. “Everyone who was young then is older now. They have families and kids and can’t make it to shows five nights a week. You have to get the younger kids. Use MySpace and the Internet and flood them.”

Another possibility is that tastes have changed, or in some ways, have not evolved in the slightest in the past 15 years.

“Everyone is kind of living in the past and comparing all the new bands to the standard of the old bands,” Lothax said. “New bands are all viewed as a rip-off of someone existing rather than having merit in the own right.”

That may be true for the “metal core” direction people seem to be going to these days. Meanwhile, older fans of metal that once evolved in Tampa aren’t really interested in anything that isn’t their favorite old-school band.

“People are stuck in the past and because of that, nobody cares,” said Scott Hollingsworth, a computer engineering major and vocalist for the local metal group Malkavian. “And in Tampa, there aren’t any young people to market to.”

The onward movement of life, the trendy fashions of corporate music and too much nostalgia are the culprits thus far.

“The kids only like what is mainstream and already signed,” Lothax said. “If it ain’t on MTV or 98 Rock, then it ain’t worth supporting.”

Within the heart of the scene lie problems, as well. There are enough local bands in Tampa to allow any number of eccentric personalities. The three main band categories are the rock stars, the humble folk and the prima donnas.

The humble folk are generally easy to get along with. They will not complain about playing first or last, they will not hassle the club owner or anyone else in a band.

However, the rock stars and the prima donnas in the scene do as much to destroy it as much as any lack of support can. Many of these guys burn so many bridges they can’t walk without falling into the water. Many of these types have the propensity to make forging alliances very difficult, as well. If a band of rock stars feels they have legions of fans and the reality is they don’t, they are annoying to those bands that just want to go and play music, but instead must deal with inflated egos.

“They turn people away who are perhaps on the fringes of liking metal,” Lothax said. “They aren’t hardcore enough fans to overlook the behavior of band guys and they give up the genre entirely after a couple bad experiences and move on to something where the musicians care more about their fans and their shows.”

So instead of buying into MTV or Clear Channel, the music fans can support local music and enter a fascinating world with raw talent bursting at the seams. If you manage to overlook a few egos and enjoy a night of music, so much the better, provided that you have the motivation to go somewhere besides Ybor to see a show. Support Tampa metal or any local music and witness an ever-evolving scene of music and eccentric personalities.