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Why metal is not obedient

by Brett Stevens
December 24, 2013 –


It’s good to see the study of metal ramping up both in academia and in popular culture. This is because for the most part, metal remains an enigma.

One of its most enduringly baffling traits is its almost self-consuming alienation. Metal refuses to be part of anything. If a social institution reaches out to it, metal withdraws; if someone does something nice for it, metal gives them the finger. One might wonder how it survives with such a self-destructive attitude.

The answer may be found in a riddle of consciousness uncovered by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He argued that what we know of reality is a “representation of a representation,” or a mental model of a world known only through sensations and re-assembled in our mind. Our judging mind forms a representation of the representation created by our senses. In the same way, metal is both a thing of its own, and a public view of the same which includes judging and social concerns.

Metal may hurt its public layer by being so alienated and isolated, but the actual thing that is metal — something we know only distantly through our senses, most notably our ears — remains health as ever. This is because it is metal the thing that defines metal the public representation, not the other way around. Metal is not obedient to any rule by itself, and it rejects formulation for the same reason it rejects trends and hippie ideas of love, peace and equality: it does not want its public handle to control its private reality. It is not ultimately rebellious per se, but disobedient, and seeks to remove itself from the social sphere entirely so it isn’t corrupted by guilt and obligation to justify itself according to the values of others.

If you wonder why ideological movements like Christian metal, National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) and red-anarchist black metal (RAE, with an “E” for “emo”) have all failed, it is because metal is fine with accepting dangerous views, but it’s not going to formalize them. That is because in this universe, all things go through a process of being created, becoming fully known, then becoming calcified and finally dying. That calcification in the human world occurs through people imitating them outside-in, i.e. writing down the elements of what the thing is, then going through the motions, and never understanding the step before the thing in which the reasons for its existence were felt and motivated people.

You may also have seen how many retro bands utterly fail to sound like anything but a grab-bag of riffs from the past. This is outside-in imitation; they know what they want to “sound like,” but they don’t know why. We could argue that heavy metal is not the sonic end product, but the thought process that leads to that final result. That thought process cannot be easily understood, but requires someone to study the subject intently and think hard enough to find all the connections in imagery, ideals and what each musical element represents. Very few can do that, and even fewer can do that and then make inspired music based on it.

If you wonder why the Death Metal Underground is so surly toward the world, this is it: we realize metal is a fragile and sacred thing, a form of art separate from the social sphere. To allow the public image of metal to control what metal is would be to kill it. Thus we tend to reject all of that image, toss aside all obedience, and remain fairly hostile to anything that threatens to introduce obligation, justification or guilt to our motivations.

You are probably aware of how to “succeed” (emphasis on first syllable) as a metal reviews site: write friendly and fawning reviews of every band that comes down the pipe so the labels can quote you, so people can see your name and identify you as a supporterTM of the underground and then visit your site. The problem with this approach is that it’s useless. People need actual information on what each release sounds like so they can, with limited time and money, make purchasing decisions that benefit them and not necessarily whatever label found a way to make a musical clone for cheap and hopes to profit from the excessively fat margins that result.

In the spirit of metal, Death Metal Underground chooses to be unbought and un-guilted. We choose to be outsiders like the music we love because only by keeping free of that public image disaster can we be honest. It will not make us popular like the glad-handers, scenesters, hipsters, poseurs and salespeople of the world. But it will keep us from harming our favorite sonic art and help us keep a clear mind about what is important.

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