Is death metal essentialist music?

by Bill Hopkins
January 27, 2013 –

essentialismDuring the second world war, while most of humanity was involved in mass warfare, the writer and thinker Jean Paul Sartre was instead laboring away in the libraries of occupied France. He was solidifying what has become known as the philosophy of ‘existentialism’. One of the main tenants of existentialism is that ‘existence precedes essence’, or in other words, that there is no fixed and immutable basis from which human life proceeds and from which it derives its meaning.

According to an existentialist, an individual human being is borne, becomes conscious, and then creates his or her own meaning from a point of reference of personal choosing, in a subjective act of pure freedom. Indeed according to Sartre, existentialism is a form of humanism, and we can see why. Secular Humanism, or modern humanism, is the normative or ethical ideal that individuals have the right and responsibility to give meaning and purpose to their own lives, free from tradition, scripture or ‘higher’ authority. So ‘existentialism’ and ‘humanism’ are both cut from the same cloth, the former being a complex (and some would argue, intentionally obscure and obfuscate) philosophical justification for the latter.

Existentialism is a reversal of the traditional metaphysical notion of ‘essentialism’, or the idea that there exists a fixed point from which values and meaning can be derived, by an objective act of intellect or rationality. The most commonly encountered form of essentialism is, in fact, religion. In the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, God is the basis for existence. He forms the immutable point from which values and meaning are derived. The actions of individuals, their lives, even the actions of entire cultures and cultural movements, derive their value (Good or Evil) from their particular relationship to God. A figure representing the extreme end of the essentialist spectrum, in so far as absolutely positioning life in relation to something prior and fixed, might be Osama Bin Laden. For Bin Laden there is one Word, one Truth, one measure of values. Human ‘choice’ is only as valuable insofar as it leads to a life proscribed by the Word of God. You are beheaded with a bread knife, held down on a concrete floor in panic and terror, if, in choosing to give your life ‘its own meaning’, you align yourself against God. Needless to say, Bin Laden and Sartre would not have got along.

In light of the issues discussed above, death metal is a curious art form. Its position on the existentialist <–> essentialist spectrum is unclear. In its aesthetic outlook, it mocks religious sentiment and tears down religious imagery with truculent glee. Its lyrics praise Satan, evil, darkness and anything, it would seem, that runs against the grain of monotheism. Hence it could be swiftly concluded that death metal is anti-essentialist art, par excellence, tearing down that that last barrier to human freedom: religion.

With a shift in perspective, however, death metal could be viewed in a thoroughly different light. It could be viewed a form of essentialist art. If this is true, then what prior structures could death metal be said to worship? Firstly, death metal posits an immutable essence from which individual human existence stems and from which it cannot escape: biology. Death metal abounds in morbid liturgical hymns about dissection, disease, the tearing of flesh, and the wrenching of bone. Secondly, death metal posits an ‘absolute’ point of reference from which all human actions are judged: death. That ‘all life ends’, is embodied in roaring sentiment in the whole show of death metal. Everyone dies, and reality cares not one whit for the individual. So you, buying your coffee table and matching coasters, beware; your time is finite. Death metal might well be an artistic conduit for spiritual readjustment in the face of something inescapable that, whether we like or not, at some point we are going to have to judge our lives in reference to.

Thirdly, in compositional method and production death metal seems to be inspired, if only implicitly, by prior natural forms. Compositionally, a death metal piece evolves via the linking of riffs according to geometrical shape as opposed to the normal way of linking parts in rock music which is harmonic. This is what give death metal its atonal and, at first, unattractive sound to the uninitiated. Production wise, nihilistic individual units of distorted tone depend on their relation to other such units, or the overarching structure of the song, to achieve beauty in death metal, a bit like matter and the physical universe where a piece of matter, taken by itself, is unremarkable and unsexy.

The list of ways in which death metal could be viewed as an acknowledgement of prior and apparently inescapable aspects of reality is a long one. Battle, night, winter, solitude; all are frequent topics of lyrical subject matter and fodder for imagery. Of course, there are all sorts of aspects of reality that are fixed and inescapable yet which death metal ignores: love, growth, joy, etc. But this is because death metal is concerned with those prior structures to human life that we choose to ignore because they are uncomfortable. Hence its ominous and brooding aesthetics. But while death metal is dark music, anyone who cares to pay enough attention can apprehend that the most worthy contributors to the genre are a world away from writing protest music.

Death metal is not ‘rebelling’ against the uncomfortable parts of life that we are doomed to face up to at some point. It is an attempt to give these aspects of life an artistic redemption. In this, and only this sense, can death metal be said to be ‘humanistic’. It is an attempt at representing those aspects of reality that we often ignore, in order to give them some relevance in human affairs so that we might adjust our lives accordingly, in full awareness of the place of human live in the cosmos.

If all this is correct, then death metal may very well be ‘naturalist religious’ music: A ‘yes’ to, and artistic redemption of, life as process, renewal, conflict and reductive energy.

18 comments

  • Preslav Hohenbergen

    I have this question. Do you believe that 99 percent of the death metal bands can actually form a complex sentence, let alone, a whole paragraph, about how they think their music is actually this metaphysical art form dwelling on one of the most morbid subjects? Aren’t most of them hammering away at their instruments because they are in fact, scared of the modern world, of reality, trying to escape it, dreading to face it, all under the guise of rebellion and non-conformism, in this sea of long hair and patches and what not.I think that if they should one day wake up with their hair gone (God forbid!) they would instantly forget about metal. At least 99 percent would do just that. I am just curious. I was an avid listener of Incantation (early), Morbid Angel (first album) and Immolation. I am not some troll, i just asked this serious question and i hope for a response.

    1. Steve08

      Whether the commonalities with Classical music present in Death Metal were intentional or not doesn’t change the result that albums like Onward to Golgotha, Dawn of Possession and Blessed Are the Sick aren’t covered in motifs and the development of thematic stripes; I personally think the next step for Metal is to encourage musical literacy and a conscious awareness of the Classical ideals (which are, as you astutely mentioned, next to unheard of by 99% of Metal musicians, not just Death Metal) mentioned in this article, so that newer bands have a chance themselves at creating great art on par with the acknowledged masters of the style, becoming more like philosophers or Classical composers, rather than mere visionaries, blessed with the euphoria of breathless insight for but a few scant releases, then lost.

    2. Metal Command

      Both are true. Metal bands are dropouts from society because society sucks. However to know that society sucks they have to know something about what they want instead. They seem to use similar themes and language in addition to being musically similar so it makes sense they have a similar thought process.

    3. SeinZeit

      In my opinion, reducing an artwork to the intentions of its creator(s) is like reducing history to the intentions of its protagonists.

  • Cargast

    If I wake up with my hair gone, everyone within fifteen miles will die.

    Of the Metal musicians I know, all of them describe their music in tones falling safely inbetween “hurr durr tremolo power chords lol” and “we must encapsulate the Absolute in this arpeggiated sequence”.

    I’d agree with this article that Death Metal is essentialist, and I will go on to say that their essence is exactly the same as that of the Abrahamic religions, though the form has been “reversed”, one might say. Metal is a European expression, just as Christianity (as it was/is) is a European expression; the one grows out of the downfall of the other. When a religion outgrows its form, it sheds its skin, adopts a new shell, etc.

    1. Metal Command

      Metal is a reaction to and rejection of rock and roll. If we wanted to make warmed over blues, country and folk music with a rollicking beat, we’d do that instead.

      There is a reason people are drawn to metal, like we’re drawn to Lovecraft and Poe (Romantic authors) and horror movies and being antisocial.

      Metal would not exist if it were not for the French Revolution. Society fell apart, and we are those who fight it.

      1. Preslav Hohenbergen

        And how exactly, if i may ask, do you fight modern society? Growing your hair long, guzzling beer and listening to a genre of music that has been dead since 1994?
        Slayer release utter bullshit.
        Morbid Angel are disco jocks.
        I still see some worth in Beherit, yet Celebrate the Dead is nothing groundbreaking.
        And Incantation release yet another album on the horrors and crimes that have happened under Christian rule. Awesome idea guys, no one has ever done that. Ever.
        Metal needs new blood. Either that or it must die.

  • Bill

    Adopting the label ‘European’ or not, there is a human attitude to the world that worships prior structures (‘nature’ in this day and age), and there is an attitude that identifies prior structures and rebels against them because they are seen as prior and therefore limiting to individual freedom. The former attitude tries to ally its bearers to the prior structures thinking that, when you remove life from what is prior to life, what results is not liberation but decay. I believe science is (essentially) essentialist, because it is concerned with identifying prior structures (laws, equations, statistical regularities) because they are the basis of life. Sort of like a surfer tries to guage the form of a wave in order to go with it rather than against it. Which is more fruitful?

    Preslav, I don’t believe most metal musicians think like this, but I don’t think most people consciously realise the basis upon which they act, which is more often than not rooted in unconscious, unreflective aspects of psychology that can be made sense of using the concepts of philosophy, history and art.

  • kcufthulu

    The realization that biology and death constitute the conditions of human life isn’t essentialist. Like almost all philosophy existentialism is aware of the implications death has for life because death isn’t an essence, and neither is biology. They are mere empirical facts. Humanism on the other hand can easily be seen as essentialist because it makes certain normative assumptions about human nature. It also is historically strongly linked to Christianity.

    1. kcufthulu

      BUT secular humanism is only essentialist under the same conditions that death metal is supposedly essentialist: Regarding biology as the essence of human existence.

      It may be that death metal does in some instances have that view, but it certainly isn’t a necessity for real death metal as many forms of it that pay no regard to biology prove.

      Death on the other hand isn’t an essence because it is per definition outside of human existence and only determines it in a Kantian sense (but at the same time a-posteriori), which isn’t essentialist.

      1. kcufthulu

        The human essence that death metal supposedly assumes can as well be interpreted as facts of life that we regularly encounter and need to deal with in some way, which existentialism doesn’t deny.

        A real argument for existentialism in death metal would be that the existentialist desire to give one’s existence a meaning stems from it’s consideration of mortality.

        I think though we can safely assume that death metal is neither existentialist nor essentialist by it’s nature. It is mainly defined by dealing with the mentioned topics and because it does so through music which is the opposite of a rational art form it isn’t fixed on one or another school of thought, except maybe that it resonates with nihilism.

  • SeinZeit

    “Death on the other hand isn’t an essence because it is per definition outside of human existence and only determines it in a Kantian sense (but at the same time a-posteriori), which isn’t essentialist.”

    Even a cursory reading of “existential” thought would show you that death is given an ontological weight as a temporal structure for mortal ontology (Dasein), and is not at all “outside” of “life” but is in fact its core determination. For Heidegger, anxiety and death are the same “essential” phenomenon.

  • Upon the Inverted Hills of Life

    It’s safe to assume that in complete objection to life, in reversal of life, that it in part worships life.

    I’m here all night folks. Tip your bartender.