Brandon Ellis knows the moment he fell in love with metal: When he heard The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden.
"I was very young when I was playing a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game, and that song was in the soundtrack," he recalled. "It really stuck out to me. I love that song. I wanted more, you know? I needed to look up what band it was, and what style of music was this? And, how can I find more things that sounded like that?"
Several international tours with his band The Black Dahlia Murder, 23,200 followers on his YouTube, and his own Jackson Pro Series Signature Brandon Ellis Kelly electric guitar later, he’s still in love.
“One of the really unique things about metal is really just how global it is,” he said. “I've played shows on every continent on Earth, except for Antarctica. And, I think that Metallica even has played in Antarctica. So how many genres can really say that? You know, I think that's, that's one of the best things about it iis just how all metalheads just feel like a common bond with each other."
Although Ellis admits outcasts like himself tend to be drawn to the genre, it seems like there’s a lot of societal pariahs who are joining forces together to rock out. And on National Metal Day on Nov. 11 — a reference to This is Spinal Tap’s amps that go to 11 — they’re finding a reason to celebrate.
Metal was the fastest growing genre of music in terms of downloaded music in 2019, according to Tunecore. And, it’s popularity is only growing. Slipknot, Korn, Megadeth, and Lamb of God were among the top 70 highest grossing band tours of 2021, per Pollstar. Metallica’s Master of Puppets — which came out in 1986 — reached number 40 on the Billboard charts this summer thanks to the nostalgic Netflix hit series Stranger Things. Festivals like Sick New World and Download Festival in 2023 are already generating a lot of buzz.
It’s not surprising, considering a significant amount of purchasing power lies with Gen X and Millennials, said Jon Romanowski, vice president of category management for metal guitar maker Jackson.
"Those are largely influential cohorts that have a lot of purchasing power," Romanowski explained. "It's the music they grew up on. They command a large part of the population. So it's probably not surprising that that type of music is resurging in a huge way. And of course, they're raising Gen Z and Alphas, who are highly influenced by the parents."
For one thing, while metal might sound the same to the non-discerning listener, it encompasses a whole host of styles. There’s something for everyone.
Guitarist Brandon Ellis of The Black Dahlia Murder performs at UC Theatre on July 7, 2018 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)
"It's kind of a running joke amongst metalheads how many dozens of sub genres there are," Ellis explained. "There's just so many neo-classical influences. There's prog rock influences. There's jazz influences. There's also punk influences and rock. There are bands that play all acoustic on folk instruments from their country. Anything goes in metal."
Deadlands singer Kasey Karlsen agreed that the vast opportunities drew her to the music.
"You have a mix of so many genres going on at the same time," she said, “Right now with Deadland, we're trying to do a little bit of dubstep stuff, a little bit of EDM. Maybe we'll throw a little bit of deathcore in there. You just never know what to expect. But because the genre is so broad, you can have so many things going on all at once."
Part of the draw is the skill it takes to play metal well. According to Jackson parent company Fender, metal musicians make up the highest percentage of virtuoso guitar players.
"There's a certain degree of power intensity I think that attracts people," Jackson’s Romanowski said. "It's sort of audio version of an action film on a roller coaster ride. There's lots of people that kind of gravitate to that sort of thing. There could be the musicality aspect, the precision of it. It's kind of similar to classical music, but much louder in some respects, but you could definitely strains of it."
He compared metal guitarists to music to 19th century virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini.
"It was thought, since they have great technical faculty and he could play all kinds of amazing things, people always said they have sold the soul to the devil to come up with that kind of talent and technique,” Jackson’s Romanowski said.
Black Dahlia Murder’s Ellis, who owns upwards of 50 guitars and practices two to three hours a day, agrees.
"There are a lot of bands who will do covers of very difficult classical pieces like Paganini or Chopin," Ellis said. "It's just always kind of been part of the equation of metal is just to be the best that you can be."
Even the guttoral growls and high pitched wails use the same techniques as opera singers, including pulling power from your diaphragm. Deadlands’ Karlsen was self-taught, but practiced the same vocal skills for years to perfect her form. She has more than 188,000 followers on TikTok, who watch her covers of songs like To The Hellfire by Lorna Shore and King for a Day by Pierce the Veil as well as her tutorials.
"As I started getting into Avenged Sevenfold via video games and stuff like that, my brother really started getting into metal," Karlsen said. "He started learning how to scream and I'd be like, 'Oh my God.' I was like, 'I want to do that.' Like, I want to scare the crap out of people. And so now it's my career."
For those who want to go to their first metal show, Karlsen advises keeping your elbows up if you’re going to be near the pit. Jackson’s Romanowski said to save money for merch, try to get up in front for the full experience, and wear loose clothing if you want to move around. And while it might seem violent, everyone is there to have a fun time — just be aware of your surroundings, Black Dahlia Murder’s Ellis said.
"There's no ill will," Ellis said. "There's no malintent at all on the behalf of the average metal concertgoer, but it is very physical. It's like a sport for people to stage dive, crowd surf, and mosh, and do all, you know, walls of death and circle pits. There's like so many different facets to it. And you know like, if my mom's coming to my show, I'm going to be very careful to place her somewhere safe.”
As for how he’s going to celebrate National Metal Day, Ellis said he plans on watching This Is Spinal Tap.
"This is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I'm definitely going to be watching that one," he said. "I watch it pretty regularly like when it's when it's been more than a few months, it's time to put on Spinal Tap again."