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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

On tonight's Grammy Awards, the five nominees in the Best Metal Performance category - that's heavy metal - might wonder if they even want to be invited to the party. The music has rarely gotten along well with the pop music establishment and it's been years since an industry spotlight has shined on a heavy metal band. But as NPR's Jacob Ganz reports, a new wave of metal shows that some interesting things can grow in the dark.

JACOB GANZ: The state of heavy metal may be in question, but partisans can agree on one thing. The form's roots are located in the chugging guitar and wailing vocals of two bands, Led Zeppelin...

(Soundbite of song)

GANZ: ...and Black Sabbath.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SHAWN BOSLER (Musician): It's very powerful music. It's bombastic. It's like Wagner, you know, and the themes have always been very fantasy - or war.

GANZ: Shawn Bosler, a New York music writer and musician, counts himself as a longtime follower of metal and its misunderstood sound.

Mr. BOSLER: It's always been kind of pimply-faced, geeky, long-haired kids who don't fit in. You know they feel outcast somehow.

GANZ: Accordingly, metal led its fans along a couple of dark pathways. Down one, death and suicide, gore and Satan. Down the other, slightly less morbid path, a "Lord of the Rings" style fantasy world with monsters and hobbits. So things went through the '70s and '80s when British bands like Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Motorhead ruled the scene, a scene encapsulated by the 1986 cult documentary "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," which captured the excitement of teenage fans hanging out before the big show.

(Soundbite of film, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot")

Unidentified Man (Metal Fan): Heavy metal definitely rules. Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Dokken, all these - Scorpions, they all rule.

GANZ: Metal has done its best to change with the times - the so-called hair bands, spandex-clad pretty boys in the 1980s, even rap-metal in the '90s. This created some problems. Albert Mudrian, editor-in-chief of Decibel magazine, says that a large number of today's bands are getting back in touch with heavy metal's roots.

Mr. ALBERT MUDRIAN (Decibel Magazine): They didn't take influence from the hair-metal bands; they didn't take influence from the rap-metal bands. They took influence from this underground movement that was going strong without the benefit of mainstream attention for many, many years.

GANZ: Mudrian says that freed from the pressure of the mainstream, metal went underground. Now a diverse set of bands have reinvigorated the scene, inspired in part by the heavy virtuoso playing of old-school metal groups like Led Zeppelin and Metallica. They're even into monsters again.

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GANZ: Heavy metal has always gone for big and heavy and hairy. That's Mastadon, the band Decibel calls the very best of 2006. Drummer Brann Daillor says his genre has grown into something that fosters innovation.

Mr. BRANN DAILLOR (Drummer, Mastadon): There's this kind preconceived notion that if you want to be successful and be on the radio, then you need to dumb it down for people. And you need to just give them a four-four, the song has to be three and a half minutes long, and verse-chorus, verse-chorus, you know what I mean, bridge - and then that's it. And besides jazz, you know, there's the possibility with playing heavy music to be really technical and really push yourself as a musician.

GANZ: Mastadon, which came together in Atlanta during metal's commercially lean years, unapologetically embraced the genre's grandiose beginnings. Each of their albums tells and epic story. "Leviathan" from 2004 is a retelling of "Moby Dick." Last year's "Blood Mountain" is about a quest to climb a mountain made of blood to capture a crystal skull. The band's guitarist, Bill Kelliher, and drummer Brann Daillor explain.

Mr. BILL KELLIHER (Guitarist, Mastadon): Imagery and storytelling and the art of the whole thing is - it's just interesting to us to write about that stuff and have the artwork on the cover and just the mystique of it all, you know.

Mr. DAILLOR: For us it has to be epic and it has to be, you know, a giant something or other - a mountain, something monolithic.

Mr. KELLIHER: A giant squid.

Mr. DAILLOR: Something - a giant skid, a giant whale, you know. It makes for really bad-ass t-shirts too.

(Soundbite of song)

GANZ: Mastadon signed to a major label for "Blood Mountain," which has sold 90,000 copies and is up for a Grammy. And other bands are making a mark.

(Soundbite of song)

GANZ: The Boston group Killswitch Engage, for example, has sales of nearly 200,000 for their new record "As Daylight Dies" since its release last November. That's still nowhere near the numbers Metallica sold in its heyday, but Albert Mudrian of Decibel says something crucial has happened within the genre.

Mr. MUDRIAN: All these factions and all these bands kind of coming together in kind of a community and trying out different things and bouncing ideas off one another in a lot of ways and creating new avenues to go with things.

GANZ: Chances are the appeal will persist through the changes. Heavy metal is the horror movie genre of rock, equal parts silly and scary and endlessly appealing to teenage boys no matter how much it's parodied, from "Spinal Tap" to "Beavis and Butthead" to Tenacious D.

Mr. MUDRIAN: I guess, here is the key to it really.

GANZ: Again, Albert Mudrian.

Mr. MUDRIAN: The thing that any super fan of metal will think is like the coolest thing that they could find, it isn't like the heaviest riffs or the fastest beats or the craziest vocals. It's bands being like sincere and genuine.

GANZ: Shawn Bosler.

Mr. BOSLER: It's kind of a call to arms of truth, in a way, even though a lot of it is really cartoony and really silly, there's always been an issue of it about speaking the truth and speaking from you heart, which I've always been really drawn to.

GANZ: Mastadon may or may not win a Grammy tonight, but as long as there are people looking for that kind of sentiment and as long as it's paired with some killer guitar riffs, metal will never die. Jacob Ganz, NPR news.

(Soundbite of song)

ELLIOTT: And this update. Speed metal band Slayer won its first Grammy tonight. To hear more Slayer, if you haven't heard enough yet, go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of whistling music)

ELLIOTT: To our knowledge, no whistlers are up for a Grammy tonight, so we thought we'd would bring you a whistling virtuoso. Hope you enjoyed your weekend. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

(Soundbite of whistling music)

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