“It feels very exciting to be a part of the heavy music scene in 2023,” Heriot’s guitarist and vocalist Debbie Gough tells NME over the phone from the middle of a European tour. The metal band featured in the NME 100 earlier this year, and are set to appear at festivals headlined by everyone from Years & Years and Enter Shikari to Slipknot and Iron Maiden this summer. before a run around Europe supporting Architects, alongside fellow British breakout stars Sleep Token.
Heriot aren’t the only British group breaking out of the underground scene either. “There are so many younger bands who have allowed heavy music to really expand its horizons,” Gough continues, with the UK scene in particular a source of inspiration. “Being surrounded by those bands has definitely injected a new lease of life into the genre,” she explains before adding that “the music scene in 2023 feels the most inclusive it’s ever been.”
Arguably, then, there’s never been a better time to be a UK metalhead. If you need proof, just look at the progress that Download Festival made earlier this month (June 8 – 11). Over the past 20 years, the metal and rock festival has celebrated the legacy of heavy music with appearances from Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses – while only occasionally taking a risk. Slipknot were given their first major festival headline slot at Download 2009 before going on top bills around the world, while both My Chemical Romance (2007) and Linkin Park (2004) proved the many, many doubters wrong with their respective headline sets.
The festival has also highlighted just how reluctant the heavy music scene at large has been to moving forward with the times, though. Halestorm became the first female-led band to top either of Download’s two biggest stages when they headlined the Opus Stage in 2019, while just last year, Wargasm’s Milkie Way was the only person to appear on the Apex Stage who wasn’t a bloke.
This year however, previous NME cover stars Nova Twins and snotty, arena-ready punks Hot Milk both delivered confident sets on the Apex Stage, alongside an appearance from Aussie alt-rockers Stand Atlantic; the Opus Stage, meanwhile, was dominated by Evanescence and Within Temptation. “We’re a long way down the line from where we were [in terms of diversity], but there’s still room to improve,” festival boss Andy Copping told NME earlier this year.
At the very top of the bill, Bring Me The Horizon’s debut Download headline set has already gone down as one of the greatest in the festival’s history thanks to its brutal rock-opera set-up, which traversed the Sheffield band’s catalogue of genre-melding anthems. “This is an amazing moment in the scene,” Architects’ Sam Carter said on the Apex Stage shortly before BMTH’s set, while backstage, Oli Sykes told NME “I’m so proud to be a part of this” – referring to how, the British scene as a whole has started to kick back after the pre-pandemic years where heavy-rock music struggled with relevance. As well as breakout metalcore band Bad Omens, BMTH will be joined by Static Dress and Cassyette on their UK arena tour in January 2024, making it a real homegrown celebration.
There’s still plenty more to celebrate across the board. Witch Fever, Crawlers, Bob Vylan and Kid Bookie all delivered star-making Download sets with music that refused to play by the old rock rules, while one of the most exciting performances across the weekend came from London-based Pupil Slicer, who make music that’s as vicious as their name suggests.
The band’s celebrated 2021 debut album ‘Mirrors’ proudly took influence from Converge, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Deafheaven, while the recently-released ‘Blossom’ saw the band really come into their own, as they blended everything from indie to math rock and hardcore. With nods to Nine Inch Nails’ electronic material, the sprawling Final Fantasy 14 soundtrack, Franz Kafka novels and 1997 sci-fi horror Event Horizon, vocalist and guitarist Katie Davies tells NME backstage at Download that “there’s a lot going on” with the album, but it all works together.
“It’s cool to see people connecting with Pupil Slicer because we’re just writing music we want to hear,” says Davies. “We’re not trying to be anyone else, we’re just doing our own thing.” It helps they don’t take themselves too seriously either, with their social media presence best described as ‘chronically online’. “We try and create a fun atmosphere around the band,” Davies adds.
As they took to Download’s Dogtooth stage two weeks ago, Pupil Slicer were met with a sea of moshpits. “It’s cool, especially as a trans musician, because I don’t see a lot of people like myself playing festivals like this,” says Davies, who is also autistic. “I’ve had people say it means a lot to see someone like them on stage, so it’s amazing to be that for someone.”
Still, it’s harder than ever for British bands to tour Europe and North America post-Brexit, while the health of the grassroots scene in the UK is also under threat after COVID. Groups have to contend with poor streaming payouts and deal with venues taking a portion of the profits from the sale of merch. Even with the support of a label and a selection of merch carefully curated by the band, Pupil Slicer lost £3000 between them on a recent European support tour.
Despite the constant struggle to keep the band going, Davies believes the wider heavy scene is thriving because “everyone’s welcoming to everyone else,” they say, before praising this new crop of British bands’ shared sense of defiance.
The London-based Bambie Thug concurs: “Creatively, I can do anything,” they explain. “Tell me I can’t do it, I’ll do it anyway.” Their recent, snarling single ‘Tsunami (11:11)’ blends rapid-fire lyrics with a glitchy arrangement – while Bambie Thug’s sound might not fit neatly inside metal’s conventional genre boundaries, they believe that over the past few years, heavy music has started “opening the gates and becoming more inclusive to different genres,” while also offering a platform to the queer community.
“Historically, heavy metal, punk and rock has always been for the outcasts, the misfits and for the people who needed to rebel. Right now, our community is completely under attack. We are the rebels you need to hear,” says Thug. “There’s space for weirdness and diversity. There’s just space for everybody.”
A shift from tribalism to more fluid listening is happening across the country. The mysterious, masked group Sleep Token sold out Wembley Arena in 10 minutes earlier this month, following the release of their third album ‘Take Me Back To Eden’, which encompasses everything from progressive metal to indie pop, while the MOBO Awards celebrated Black alternative music for the first time in 2022.
“I’m very optimistic that heavy bands will continue to have their spotlight amongst more traditionally ‘accessible’ music,” Gough continues. “It’s incredible to see bands that we’ve looked up to supporting younger bands within our scene. Of course people start bands for their own enjoyment but being encouraged by those who inspired you to do so is such a wonderful feeling.”
She explains that seeing the level of success that homegrown legends Bring Me The Horizon and Architects have achieved gives Heriot “drive” to continue working, while TikTok is providing a gateway for many newcomers to discover the sheer, awesome power of metal, with the likes of Bad Omens and Sleep Token regularly going viral on the platform. For the first time in a long time, it feels like anything is possible for heavy music, with British bands at the very forefront of this breakthrough moment.
“I am so optimistic about the growth of heavy metal,” Gough concludes. “I feel like we are at the beginning of a new wave of modern alternative music. Bands are just being celebrated for their individualities – and there’s a sense of togetherness, regardless of your sound.”