The path of heavy metal is a solitary one. Most people do not like the idea of it, hate the sound of it, and look down on those who like it. It is not simplistic and mindlessly obsessive like rock, nor fancy and high-falutin’ like jazz. It seems deliberately antisocial, disruptive, violent and dark.
And yet, the herd is often wrong. History might be described as times when the herd were wrong, and this was finally seen by enough people to tip the balance, and so something different other than “the usual way” could be attempted. The guy who first tamed fire was probably seen as a crackpot by “everyone,” up until they enjoyed their first home-cooked meal.
This article uses the words of another who has pursued the same solitary path that our writers have chosen for nearly three decades. He goes by the name of Old Disgruntled Bastard and writes on heavy metal as a spirit, a philosophy and a psychological practice like meditation. We can pull much carefully observed life from his analyses.
One of the reasons that heavy metal is unpopular is that it does not try to be popular like everyone and everything else. Instead, it looks toward a truth in reality, logic or the intuition, and chooses that over conformity. This means that it subconsciously recognizes that the opposite of popularity is elitism:
Using elitist as a pejorative is the recourse of the lowest common denominator. A judicious elitism has the power of introspection and objectivity, is simultaneously secured of conviction and aware of limitations, in oneself and in others. A non-myopic elitism spurs one on to a road of constant self-improvement as befitting one’s natural abilities while humbly acknowledging ways in which others may exceed us. It is often misconstrued as arrogance by those content in straddling the noncommittal middle ground; if it be arrogance, then it is an arrogance borne from idealism and not from the size of your record collection or photographs taken alongside rock stars. The vapid are ever too hasty to ascribe jealousy as the cause behind strong beliefs but it is beyond their comprehension that for some, the ire they vent has no root other than a deep-seated discontent with the hollow structure of the surrounding world.
The heavy metal universe is not egalitarian, or equally open to everyone, as is the world of socializing with its emphasis on popularity. Instead, it is an uneven topography defined by quality and hierarchy more than participating as a mass. On one side are the normies whose desire is a bourgeois oblivion to all around them that does not concern them in the time between now and the next paycheck. On the other are the poseurs, who are people who pretend to have ideals but in fact are self-serving, which is what happens when self-interest trumps all other concerns like the future, the past and accuracy in understanding our world.
Through this battered landscape wash trends, or fascinations of the herd, which people partake in so that they may be popular and in order to avoid thinking about the dark things in life that give it meaning and write the narrative of history, like death, disease, violence and genocide. Metal is addicted to power, which is the opposite of authority. Tornadoes have power. Bureaucrats have authority.
Ideas have power too. In the metal world, the lowest rung is for those who are reality-deniers, or deliberately evasive of what is obviously real. These are the people who ignore real problems to focus on symbolic ones, or deny their need for something more significant in life than a job, credit card and group of chums to swill watery beer with. The more real an idea is, the more powerful it is.
This leads to a complex recognition, which is that metal is a spirit more than a thing. Art is communication between artist and audience; this is why artists want to be heard even if they will never make any money from doing so. With a highly metaphorical genre like heavy metal, what is being communicated is a mindset or outlook on the world more than specifics.
For that reason, all of the magazine definitions of heavy metal fail. They focus on its outer traits, and not what central force selected them as a means to manifest its communication. This leads to perpetual confusion between instance and essence of heavy metal:
In art, in music, and, what matters to us the most, in heavy metal, the source of confusion between sound and meaning can be traced back to the general human miscomprehension of real essences and nominal essences. Moreover, we are unsure whether art is a substance found occurring naturally, which our senses acting as conduit feed in to our mind for further contemplation. Or might it be a mixed mode that we create entirely inside the confines of the mind?
Art is unique in that it can be demonstrated as a real, physical, sensible object, and therefore is liable to be misconstrued as a substance, much like gold, with tangible, equivalent qualities or, which is to say the same thing, nominal essences. Black metal comes to be defined by such signifiers as violent percussion, rasping vocals, incessant tremolo picking, blaspheming lyrics, and so on. What else is death metal but growling vocals, themes of blood and death, choppy rhythms, and technical playing? Facile denominations of this kind can be applied to every sub-strain of heavy metal, but that is ignoring the complexity of the issue at hand. Well, perhaps facile is the wrong word to use in this context; styles of metal are defined by how they sound, after all, but only that and nothing else?
Metal is more of a philosophy than a tangible thing, but this philosophy is communicated through tangible music, although because all learning is esoteric, most of us do not know what to look for, and so we hear the music in a different context — say, a rock context — where all of what makes it distinctive is missed, and so the communication goes unrecognized.
This fits with two great sources of wisdom, the first of which is nihilism:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence.
This seems a little extreme. No communication? But things are communicated… at least when the other party understands how to comprehend what is being said. In this view, communication is more like watching a play on a stage. We can take away meaning, if we are ready to understand and because of that, know what to pay attention to. A play to a toddler is baffling because they do not know how to follow the action, much like watching soccer is incomprehensible to Americans. When you know what to look for, you know what is happening.
A second part to this viewpoint comes to us from Kraftwerk:
I’m the Antenna
You’re the transmitter
Music consists of vibrations. These can then be interpreted, if one is at the right wavelength to receive them. Heavy metal resonates with some people, and not with others. Of those that it does find an audience with, only some are ready and able to understand it. It is in that understanding that the reasons why the music is the way it is, and through that is underlying philosophy, emerge.
In this sense, the role of the heavy metal fan is not as someone who enjoys music, but who interprets it to find out what it contains. This content consists of a philosophy of life which can be discerned only through analysis of the heavy metal in question:
If we consider tradition as conforming to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and modernism as the questioning and frequent renouncing of that same wisdom, then it becomes self-evident that heavy metal occupies a strange, chameleon-like, shape-shifting position between the two. On the one hand is metal’s emphatic rejection of social and political tradition, yet, paradoxically, on the other hand is metal’s stubborn orthodoxy. Which leads me to believe that metal weaves its own unique tradition around itself as a cocoon. This tradition may be inimical to the contemporary climate at first, iconoclastic even, basing itself on a foundation of abstract ideals, but once this tradition is established, metal changes mode from a revolutionary idiom to a conservative one. Metal creates its own narrative and then makes a virtue out of adherence to that narrative
In Wilde’s thought, the difference between art and critic is entirely arbitrary. Common consensus may state that the process of creation poses more challenges and therefore is far nobler than that of merely talking about the end product; but, then, is there really a difference between art and criticism? What else does the artist do if not critique nature itself, either outside of him or within, leaving certain details out, including others, all to meet his individual propensities in that pocket of space and time? Seen in this light, the critic then occupies the same position with respect to a work of art that the artist occupies with respect to nature.
With this idea, metal becomes a quest for the inner: a union between the creative imagination of fans and the communication embedded within the metal music, through the choice of riff, mode, song structure and the poetic narrative or story of an inner journey that these express and, through appreciation of the fan, transfer.
That realization gives meaning to some of the traits of heavy metal culture. Poseurs are those who delight in the superficial but miss the inner meaning; trends are stampedes away from meaning toward new distractions, or new quantities instead of enhanced quality; elitism is valuing those who understand the inner meaning, and not external traits like popularity or novelty.
All of heavy metal can be seen as a hierarchy based on the quality of understanding of metal present in each person. The genre self-polices with obscurity, or making music that is alien to the everyday mind and yet still discernibly beautiful, making the elegant out of the dark and worshiping the power of music rather than making it “safe” for the mundane listener obsessed with the mediocre but distinctive.
This is why so much of heavy metal hides in obscurity:
Retrospective no doubt plays a big role in all this; we now know what came to be of the genre after its heyday, and it isn’t hard to think that those lo-fi aesthetics and the young ferocity accompanying them were subliminal quality checks, on integrity, and against this scene being cheapened with people of tangentially opposed life philosophies. Beauty is skin-deep; don’t judge a book by its cover; aphorisms persist because they contain no small shred of truth. The old demos make the fan work for his pound of flesh; likewise they repel those concerned with little else than surface attributes.
Like a rebellious teenager, heavy metal pushes away the people around it until they come back and understand it on its own terms. Those terms do not fit into our categories such as “revolutionary” or “conservative,” but constitute a rediscovery of reality through appreciating the wisdom of its order, a process called transcendence.
Metal is discovery of life outside of the bourgeois world of human fears and assertions as to what is true. It represents an intellectual misanthropy, or distrust of what people think, especially in groups. Instead, it is a casting aside of all boundaries in pursuit of what is real and through that, what is real within ourselves, which is the tuning of spirit that it provides for its listeners.