Why are moshpits wilder in groove metal than death metal?
There is an integral and unifying concept between many metalheads and their music; it is a rite which involves people hurling themselves into a writhing mass of profusely-sweating lunatics. They seem hell-bent on the destruction of self and others, and usually emerge with a widened grin and an almost-full dental record. Most readers of this site will be familiar with the art of the moshpit, a tradition steeped in the old school of hardcore.
Moshing originally kicked off with the chaotic traditions of punk dancing or slamdancing, started by 80s Washington hardcore bands such as Bad Brains (who actually coined the term “mosh” from vocalist H.R.’s Jamaican pronunciation of “mash”), and then shifted to metal with the inception of thrash metal, particularly incited by Anthrax with their song ‘Caught In A Mosh’. Moshpits have since evolved, and are now to be found at a myriad of metal concerts of different subgenres. Although most forms of the heavier end of metal have pits to some extent, the genres that tend to see them appear en masse are groove metal and metalcore, with bands such as Pantera, Lamb Of God and Heaven Shall Burn being exemplary for this. Why it is these genres that have gained wilder moshpits, and not some of the more extreme styles of music like death metal, which one would be more likely to associate with this form of chaotic entertainment?
One of the most challenging things to convey to moshpit skeptics is the feeling of trust within such an environment. There is an unwritten set of rules which states, chiefly among others; to help those who fall down so as to avoid trampling; to crowdsurf out the injured or concussed; and to not grope or sexually assault anyone. Possibly the most paradoxical element of a moshpit, no matter its scale, is that the shoving and contact is not to be taken personally, and can even feel welcoming for both younger and older metalheads who are aware that the rules are being followed. It is a form of full-body catharsis in a way, the music rushing through you as you punctuate every beat with a collision. No fists, no kicks, just crashing through people in an admittedly deranged-looking fashion: it looks out of control and wild.
Before diving into the question at hand, we must define the term ‘wild’ in the context of a moshpit; it does not necessarily mean just the number of ambulance casualties stretchered out, or even the destruction caused to the venue itself. The size of the pit area, the intensity and willingness of those moshing – how quickly a wall of death forms, for instance – and even the bands’ reaction to the crowd (whether they seem satisfied or even surprised), are all contributory factors. This will naturally vary between genres, and some concerts will rarely, if ever, see pits form; some styles of music are just not cut out for moshpits. Doom metal bands such as Candlemass or Solitude Aeternus are not going to send people into a flailing fury, for example, nor are the symphonic black metal antics of Dimmu Borgir, though some of their fans may attempt to incite one. Progressive and avant-garde metal can also be ruled out owing to complicated time signatures and shifting musical styles making a rhythm difficult to sustain. Moshing has also never really suited the power metal genre, although many concert-goers will do their bit in the headbanging department. This does still leave a fair spectrum of genres to observe, although for the sake of brevity I will narrow my exploration to a comparison of groove metal with death metal.
Let us compare two classic songs of the above-mentioned death and groove metal genres: Cannibal Corpse‘s ‘Make Them Suffer’ and Pantera’s ‘5 Minutes Alone’ respectively. The first one is certainly a heavy and brutal track bound to get more than a few necks awhirl, and have plenty of individuals rolling around to the thick, high-speed riffs. However, ‘5 Minutes Alone’ has an infectious stomp in both its guitar riffs and drums, guaranteed to set a pit ablaze when the band played it, and a higher level of accessibility in both the vocal style and slower-than-blistering speed, compared to Cannibal Corpse and other bands of that ilk. Groove metal has an innate ability to set a rhythm into the crowd, along with the right level of aggression and bravado also displayed in newer acts such as Devildriver. It sets a more acceptable pace for the crowd, guiding the movements via the band’s actions onstage in controlled bursts rather than all-out annihilation. It also has a psychological effect upon the listener, stretching back in history to drum rhythms such as those in Masai pogo-esque dancing, having a hypnotic effect on both the players and the dancers.
This groove factor has also been extended to breakdowns, found primarily in metalcore songs, the results of which can be seen in any Heaven Shall Burn pit. Although these heavier moments are not exactly renowned for their musical creativity, they do possess the required groove factor, especially the better-executed ones like those of Unearth and Killswitch Engage. For those uncertain of what a breakdown constitutes, it’s a repeated, usually downtuned riff, inserted within a song almost solely to incite a moshpit. It harkens back to the earlier mention of tribal rhythms, which when amplified to fill a concert venue have a mesmerizing effect upon certain members of the crowd, namely the ones subject to a desire to mosh. Although breakdowns may not be to everyone’s taste, one can hardly deny the enthusiasm which some members of the crowd exude when these moments emerge in a setlist.
Following on from the tribal train of thought, the analogy follows therefore that a moshpit is an initiation rite, a hazing fraught with danger which offers a feeling of triumph when the fledgling metalhead emerges mostly unscathed. Groove metal and metalcore seem to be the ‘gateway’ of moshpit genres; light and accessible enough for the younger and less experienced and yet with a heavy touch for the more extreme types, turning the pit into a stirred melting pot.
This larger range of audience also partially explains why the pits seem wilder. The trade-off between the young and reckless and the experienced ones who know the ropes creates a more explosive environment. Obviously the death metal moshpits have their dangers, in fact possibly being more life-threatening than the groove metal ones, but with that comes the instinctive sensibility instilled that only the hardier metalheads go in there; the others keep to the edges. Death metal pits’ collective reputations precede them as dangerous, and therefore a smaller minority of concert-goers are likely to subject themselves to them, saving themselves instead for the (possibly oxymoronic) friendlier moshpits. Many bands have their own stories to tell of scenes they’ve witnessed in moshpits, of ripped piercings and hurled prosthetic limbs, but these examples only seem to add to the excitement of a moshpit, while also heightening the instinct for the preservation of oneself and others.
Even the uninitiated metal listener cannot help but stomp along to a Pantera riff, much the same as the fans who listened to the thrash metal fans used to (and still do) mosh at their favorites’ gigs back in the 80s, or Led Zeppelin concert-goers before them would bang their heads on the stage, or even casting back to the riots during Stravinsky‘s The Rite of Spring. Music almost invariably inspires an emotional reaction in people, which when combined with the underlying current of rhythm invokes, this results in some eyebrow- and hair-raising experiences such as moshpits. Groove metal pits may not be the most bone-crunchingly violent zones for music-related combat compared to death metal ones, but they undoubtedly display a wider variety of enthusiastic metalheads. Integrated with the exhilaration of fighting for survival and the ever-present rhythm, these factors put them ahead of other moshpits in terms of wildness and chaos. Although some more hardened elitist veterans may turn their nose up at a Devildriver concert, then jump into an Obituary one, I personally think they should get the best of both worlds, at least until the younger ones become brave enough to join them in the latter arena.
1. MTV – Social History Of The Mosh Pit
2. Ambrose, Joe. Moshpit: The Violent World of Mosh Pit Culture. Omnibus (2001)
3. Lamb Of God live performance of ‘Black Label’
4. Moshing Explained: Etiquette Origin History & Criticisms
5. Heaven Shall Burn live performance of ‘Voice Of The Voiceless’
6. ‘Endless’ by Unearth and ‘Numbered Days’ by Killswitch Engage
7. Pit Stories – Lynchmada’s Crowd Surfing Leg
8. Hill, Peter (2000). Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge University Press.