It's not uncommon to find the "streets" of Universal's CityWalk overrun with high-school kids on any given weekend night. The pseudo-nightlife environment makes the kids feel cool while the theme-park safety makes parents feel less neglectful. Yet, on certain nights, the gossiping cliques are interrupted by a steady stream of black-clad rebellion; boys and girls decked out in their finest post-apocalyptic attire, all headed toward the Colosseum on the hill called Hard Rock Live. Like pilgrims toward Mecca, the individuality of each member is soon swallowed by the conformity of the group and, once frisked and carded, the shrine opens up to allow the faithful to collectively bang their head against the altar of metal.
Yet, despite the fact that anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 kids are packed into the venue, this isn't a show by a Clear Channel/MTV-embraced band. In fact, it's quite likely that none of the bands playing have even signed a recording contract. Rather, this fanatical spectacle is provided by a handful of local bands, each of whom easily inspire the roiling crowd to sing-along chants, frantic moshing, headbanging catharsis and a damned good time. Whether it's the freak-out, multigenre attack of Indorphine, the pummeling thud of O.F. Beatdown, the grinding darkness of Five Billion Dead or any of the other powerful metal bands that routinely destroy local stages, it all adds up to a sound that's deeply resonant with an increasingly larger -- and younger -- audience.
"High-school kids are the best," laughs Indorphine guitarist Buddy Fischel. "They do crazy shit that nobody else will. They have the best time at our shows."
Like most cities, the majority of Orlando's musical offerings are geared toward drinking-age adults. Yet, unlike most cities, all-ages shows in Orlando aren't typically relegated to VFW halls and high-school gyms. For younger fans of heavier music, the fact that Orlando can claim two large venues -- Hard Rock Live and Downtown Disney's House of Blues -- that regularly schedule all-ages shows is a godsend. After all, for a high-schooler deeply into music, nothing can top seeing a powerful, aggressive band in a big, nice-sounding room.
"A band like Deroot can put 2,500 people in Hard Rock Live and 80 percent of those kids are under 18 and can't get into other venues," says Matt Wagner. Wagner -- as both founder of the Orlando Metal Awards and bassist in Five Billion Dead -- has benefited from the increased profile that large, all-ages shows have given to the Orlando metal scene. Making heavier music available to a younger, music-hungry audience has only increased those kids' appetite for destruction.
Which brings them out to check out local talent. Fortunately, the talent in Orlando has only gotten better and more diverse in the past few years. After a considerable dry spell that found metal well out of public favor across the country, the last year or so has seen radio become completely dominated by heavy bands. And though many of them are direct descendants of the "nÅ¸-metal" trend initiated by Korn and Limp Bizkit, many others merge primal riffage and modern production for a sound that updates the aggression of thrash into a more melodic rage. It's these middle-of-the-road metal bands -- Godsmack, Staind, Disturbed -- who are reigniting interest in heavier music. And, like Wagner says, once the fans are hooked, they can only get more involved.
"There are always people out there looking for something more extreme," he says. "Kids will listen to what's on the radio and hear a Godsmack song or a Sevendust song and then they'll go pick up a Slayer album or whatever and then they keep looking for things that are heavier and more extreme."
"Heavy" and "extreme" are what the Orlando scene offers ... in (ace of) spades. Forced underground by trends such as grunge and alt-rock and nü-metal, the lone practitioners of the genre have been left to their own devices for the past decade, woodshedding ideas and acting like, in the words of Judas Priest, defenders of the faith. The result has been a dozen or so new bands that evoke the aggressive attack metal has been known for, while presenting it in multiple and diverse fashions that would be unrecognizable to Raven and Saxon fans of yore.
"About five years ago was probably the lowest point locally," says Kevin Bullock of Pain Principle, a band that's been part of the scene for 10 years. "Over the past year and a half though, I've noticed that heavier bands are starting to do better with their shows and that more new bands are starting to play heavier music for the first time in quite a while.
"It's probably more diverse than ever (locally). There's still some rap-influenced stuff -- it's starting to taper off, but there's still plenty of it -- but there's also bands like Five Billion Dead that are modern-sounding but with roots in older death metal, while a band like Trivium is more European-sounding."
Jimmy Grant, vocalist for Indorphine, agrees: "A band like Ignid, the music they play is still metal, but it's not like any other metal band in town. They've raised the bar as far as technicality and musicianship. And then, way over on the other side of things, you've got a band like Junkie Rush, who are totally different in style, but they're also completely amazing."
Somewhere on that spectrum lies Grant's own band. Cobbling together a varied batch of influences -- none of which, with the exception of the locally revered Midst of Zool, are remotely "heavy metal" -- Indorphine has quickly become the Orlando metal band to watch. In just over two years, they've converted hundreds of fans to their unique heaviness. Fusing spastic, staccato guitar attacks, Patton-esque vocal squealing and a rhythmic sensibility that evokes hip-hop grooves without overtly falling into rap-metal schlock (especially given the dynamic tempo changes within each of the band's songs), Indorphine is a formidable stage presence and their undeniable impact has easily pushed the outer edge of the average metal fan's tolerance.
As Grant puts it, Indorphine's defiance of genre rules shouldn't be a surprise. "One of the biggest things about being in a metal band is the freedom you've got to do whatever you want. Because you're certainly not starting a metal band to get on the fucking radio."
Regardless, even to members of the band, the incredible reception they've received is somewhat unexpected. "I was shocked," says drummer Everett Sailor. "I didn't think we'd get past our first show. I thought we'd get run out of town."
But they didn't. And, as Wagner of the Metal Awards explains, the very nature of the city's widely varied musical landscape is part of the reason.
"Tampa was always known as the death-metal capital of the world because of bands like Morbid Angel and Deicide. The Orlando scene doesn't really subscribe to that anymore. A lot of bands -- like Indorphine or Gargamel! -- really push the boundaries as far as what metal can be. They're experimental, but they've got a really heavy edge. There's incredible diversity in the scene, from bands like that to a band like O.F. Beatdown, whose music is really crowd-friendly and aggressive and a band like Trivium, playing a style that's a cross between early Metallica and the current wave of metal like Killswitch Engage."
With an "anything goes as long as it's heavy" attitude that has allowed dozens of new bands into the scene, the Orlando metal population has exploded over the past couple of years. Newer bands have updated classic metal tendencies with their own flavor. And whether it's Angel Autopsy's grinding goth, School for Heroes' melodic riffage or Aruspex's black extremism, each new band brings a new facet to the area's heaviness.
"I'm just blown away by all the bands that are popping up around town," says Daryl Rohr, guitarist for the splatter-core combo Chunk Bucket. "When we started, it seemed like there was nothing around, and then suddenly, there's bands everywhere. We spent a year doing nothing and there were a couple of name bands on the scene that we wanted to give a run for their money. By the time we were ready to start playing out, all those bands were done and about a thousand new ones had sprouted up."
Yet, the legion of newcomers hasn't completely wiped the slate clean of metal alumni. Rob Rock made his name as vocalist of choice for a long line of axe-shredders, from Chris Impellitteri and Tony MacAlpine to Axel Rudi Pell. As a solo act, he routinely tours Europe, making only occasional live appearances in Orlando. But, as proven by the substantial turnout at his recent CD-release party at Lost and Found (the pre-eminent local club for drinking-age metal fans), he's still well respected at home. So much so, in fact, that he was voted Best Metal Vocalist at the last Orlando Metal Awards. Rock, whose musical style is very much in the power metal, old school of Iron Maiden, has been in the unique position of introducing the newly expanding scene to what was once the only sound of true heavy metal.
"More and more of the death-metal type bands -- with the really heavy riffs and the Cookie Monster vocals -- are coming to our shows," he says. "They're like, 'Wow, we've never seen Stratovarius or Iron Maiden, but you sound just like those guys.' And when they say that, I realize that they didn't have those bands in their lives coming up. I wonder how kids who are into that stuff could be into melody or into clear vocals, but they are and they're reacting to us like they just found 10 bucks on the street."
Rock attributes much of the scene's newfound health to an underground that's both similar to and far different from the tape-trading/fanzine-driven subculture that propelled British metal and thrash metal into the cultural mainstream in the '80s.
"There's no mainstream media support for this kind of music. No MTV, no Clear Channel," he says. "But there's a bunch of underground metal bands that are doing great on their own. It's getting better, but it's nowhere near its peak. I think what's happening is that local metal bands are realizing that there are other metal bands around. Things like the Orlando Metal Awards are making people aware that there are a lot of metal bands around here." (The website www.orlandometalawards.com also helps keep the metal community informed of upcoming shows.)
Whether or not the mainstream ever picks up on metal (again) is yet to be seen. But the continuing support for Ozzfest and Summer Sanitarium, along with smaller package tours like "Gods of Metal" and "Art of Noise" is certainly indicative of a national hunger for heaviness.
"Metal's almost like the new vaudeville," explains Indorphine bassist Tanner Owings. "People, since the minstrel days, have always had a place for traveling entertainers. And metal gives those people a way to deal with their anger and angst in a positive way."
Locally, the enthusiastic reception that greets bands like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the local diversity that defines the scene shows that Orlando's heavy crowd has impeccable taste in minstrelsy. As Matt Wagner puts it: "A lot of people are looking at Orlando for the new capital for metal in Florida."
And the way it looks, he may very well be right.