It's finally happened. Precisely the type of cultural homogenization, Disneyfication, little boxes made of ticky-tacky nonsense warned about for years is no longer some looming doom. It’s here. Urban development and an enormous influx of money into even creakier thoroughfares of Portland’s landscape have turned the whole thing upside down, and you’re either dealing with it, or you’re complaining about it. Very rare is the presence of a neutral bystander.
Every corner of the artistic landscape has been forced to evolve, but perhaps none quite so much as Portland’s heavy music community. Forced to confront a steady wiping out of established venues over the last five years, metalheads, punks, grindcore kids and noise-rockers alike have adjusted. And while the entire world likely looks at Portland as the place where bands go to establish a launchpad or even hit it big, the truth about the disparity between ballyhooed heavy touring acts like Red Fang and the staunchly DIY collectives is more important now than ever. What realities and misperceptions lurk amidst the darkened venues of Portland’s underground metal and heavy music community? As it turns out, there are a lot of varied opinions on that topic.
The people who comprise the underbelly of Portland’s slick new milieu are many-tentacled, with each showgoer, booker, band member, DJ, journalist, publicist, sound person and venue owner holding a symbolic piece of the puzzle. Some have been around longer than others, and have borne witness to the transformations and new challenges firsthand.
Nathan Carson moved to Portland from Corvallis, Ore., in 1997. That same year, he formed the long-running doom metal act Witch Mountain with guitarist Rob Wrong. As a respected arbiter of all things metal thanks to his Nanotear Booking duties, bylines in such publications as Vice and Terrorizer, and his gig as host of XRAY.fm’s Heavy Metal Sewing Circle—among many other accolades—Carson has been a flag bearer both as witness and participant.
“I’ve always said that what’s best about the Portland music scene is that it’s based on community, not competition,” Carson explains. “Other cities have much more competitive scenes, but they also have more industry and infrastructure. We have a nice, comforting home base here, but it’s not a springboard for success.”
Josh Hughes, longtime buoy of Portland’s Rabbits, as well as co-founder of the summer anti-fest Festicide and head honcho at the record label Eolian Empire, concurs. While there have been notable exceptions in the years since Relapse Records touched down in Portland—releasing the LP Lower Forms by Hughes’ Rabbits in 2011 and signing the now huge Red Fang, as well as later signees like Lord Dying and Usnea—the overwhelming majority of the heavy music community has been preserved through a strong underground.
“There’s no place I’d rather play than The Know,” Hughes says. “I’ve played big clubs; I don’t like it.”
Money and its influence are a sticking point for a lot of the scene’s lynchpins. Distrust, irritation and outright vitriol against the effects of an influx of real estate developers and out-of-towners are palpable frustrations for a huge portion of those who have a stake in or passion for the heavy music community. And while the irony may lie in the fact that almost everyone Vortex spoke to is in fact a transplant, the issue appears more to lie with tenets of respect for Portland’s yesteryear cultural mores.
“Newcomers buy condos adjacent to historic music venues and then complain about the noise and people who hang around,” notes journalist and publicist Cat Jones. “That’s like moving next to an airport and complaining that the jet engines make too much noise. Heavy music is a part of Portland’s history. If these people are going to move here and drive up rent prices, the least they can do is research the culture and participate rather than trying to drive it away.”
“The underground music community is being jeopardized, but I have also watched previous music communities that I loved die, primarily the queer punk, metal and anarchist communities that I had the privilege to hang with in the early aughts,” explains Haley Westeiner, bassist for experimental metal trio Eight Bells. “Sadly, this is how it is, the waxing and waning of scenes, ebbing and flowing with the tides of late capitalism and gentrification.”
Optimism in the face of these very real struggles is strong though. In the past two years, Portland has seen the demise of two all-ages institutions. Both Backspace and Slabtown were anchors of the minors scene, venues that provided nurturing environments for up-and-coming metal, punk and noise bands. Recently, Black Water Bar has picked up the slack for the all-ages set, and house shows remain viable options for maintaining the creative flow of the scene, despite fears of insularity creeping up.
“All music is being fragmented by genre and subgenre,” Carson notes. “In the early ‘90s, popular local bands could draw 500 to 800 people to a show. Now people wear their favorite styles like a badge on T-shirts and patches and seldom stray from their favorite paths and watering holes.”
“You have to get out there to have a vibrant scene,” Hughes continues, “and sure you’re gonna have some shitty bands and shitty people, but you have to keep these alliances going. Not everything can be neat and tidy all the time.”
The same issues with inclusiveness around women and their role in Portland’s primarily male-dominated heavy music community persist, though many of the scene’s female participants and supporters don’t see it as much different here than anywhere else.
“The metal scene here is as inclusive to women as the average male-dominated music scene, which I suppose means vaguely inclusive with some inevitable hiccups along the way,” states Kira Clark of the heavy doom band Muscle and Marrow. “Having a woman in a band is sometimes treated as a gimmick or a genre within itself. This is problematic.”
“The metal scene from far away may look like a bunch of bad motherfuckers, and that may be partly true,” Westeiner says, “but they’re also super sweet and cool and probably more welcoming than would be expected. One of the less sexy elements of metal, to me anyway, is its xenophobia; its desire for its own perfect, distilled essence, which at times I think can cross a slippery slope into creepier and sort of predictable elements of exclusion.”
“While it’s not yet equal in numbers, this is a city of women who don’t take any shit and love heavy music with every fiber of their being,” Jones adds. “I can only see it getting better every year.”
Ultimately, the overwhelming view of the movers and shakers of Portland’s heavy music scene is that while things are in constant flux due to lots of evolutions, it is strong. There is great respect for the fortitude and work ethic of the Red Fangs of the scene, but the strength runs from the bottom to the top. With awareness, support and the continued pursuit of discovery, this community is destined to thrive for a long time to come.
“Go see shows of bands you haven’t heard of and aren’t your friends,” insists Chris Trumpower, purveyor of Soundcontrol PDX booking. “Pay the cover. Buy drinks. We need to financially support the venues we have left or we will lose them too.”
“We have some of the best heavy bands in the US here and we also have some of the most passionate and supportive people coming out to shows,” says Justin Cory, guitarist and vocalist for funereal doom quartet Usnea. “I believe we can maintain the amazing feats we’ve been achieving and are capable of in the future, we just have to beat the big money assholes trying to make Portland into a playground for the rich and privileged.”