Death Metal Underground
Recent Comments

Heaviness, the epic and masculinity

December 17, 2013 –

manowar-band_photo

In conversation with Martin Jacobsen, the topic of “heaviness” came up. What is heavy? Why is the term applied to metal? This question in many ways defines why it’s so hard to understand what metal is, much less describe it.

From my experience, metal is a spirit that leads to an approach. It’s not dissimilar to classical, where a certain attitude toward life, spirituality and culture leads to a form of music complete with its complexity and techniques. Nor is it all that different from martial arts, where a specific outlook leads to some near-universal shared characteristics.

Coming at metal from a literary/philosophy background, this isn’t surprising. Artistic movements tend to share traits they develop independently. They do this because they approach their art with a similar feeling, sentiment or belief system, and as a result no matter where they start, they end up in similar places. This is analogous to how just about every culture on earth has invented something like a chair, with most designs being very similar.

Jack Fischl over at PolyMic has another take on metal with his article ‘”That’s So Metal” Might As Well Mean “That’s So Masculine”‘ — it’s a bastion of alternative masculine thought:

According to the book Running with the Devil by Robert Walser, heavy metal imagery, music, style, and lyrics offer the illusion of power to a group (young men) that simultaneously lacks traditional forms of power (money, social standing) and is constantly barraged with cultural messages that inforce the importance of those forms of power. Listening to the music, especially by going to a concert, allows low-power young men to escape and live vicariously through metal’s imagery, the way one might live through books, movies, or TV shows.

Whereas pop music tends to portray (or at least address) your classical “manly” man, metal more often ties into elements of fantasy and science fiction — two other bastions of alternative masculine escape. Any given metal song likely depicts a man or male entity (spirit, creature) struggling with something — his place in the world, a woman, his own emotions. In other words, a typical song involves guys dealing with normal guy issues from a guy’s perspective.

He does have a point. The modern world does not exactly relish the hyper-masculine, but it gives it voice in rock music through the intense sexuality of the sound. However, metal takes this a degree higher. Where rock is about individual sexual power, metal is about power itself, and transcends the sexual per se in favor of an overall masculine intensity. This is the epic nature of metal; it is not based in the individual, but all that the individual cannot control.

Some might say this world, by being so obsessed with the safety of each and every person and ensuring that we all get along, is against the kind of conflict-driven Nietzschean masculinity that metal seems to espouse with its lyrics on war, death, violence and destruction.

For many of us however metal is more than masculinity. It is a worship of power itself. When you wield death and conquest, you are the power that society denies. This unites metal’s outsider status with its realistic ideals and returns us to a definition of “heavy.” In a time of stoned flower children worrying about nothing more than their next hook-up, “heavy” encompassed all the thoughts that this worldview could not tolerate. It was all that we fear and want to suppress, including mortality and fear of loss.

What made Black Sabbath “heavy” was not a specific technique but a tendency to gravitate toward these dark thoughts and the reality that society denies. This neatly coupled metal with hardcore punk, which saw a society out of control and in denial of basic facts of life. Together these ideas brought metal to its underground state where it is completely alienated from the values and behaviors of most of civilization.

What is “heavy”? It is that which we cannot define because it is beyond the instruments of our culture — such as it is — to discuss. It is the thoughts that grip us at four in the morning and shock us awake. It is what stalks us in dreams. And it is our primal past, reaching past our modern technology and enforced civility, awakening the beast within.

The return of reviews and opinion in metal

December 16, 2013 –

my_first_metal_drum_set

The problem with dreams is that when they are achieved, the dream is no more. Life is about the chase, not the catch. This doubly applies to metal once it got social acceptance.

During the 1980s and 1990s in everywhere but Scandinavia, to be metal was to identify yourself as a kind of social reject. It was equal parts nerdly and menacingly rootless at a time when stable suburban living and office jobs were the only acceptable future.

Sometime in the late 1990s however metal was discovered as a form of natural resource. This resource is not renewable and hard to locate. It is hipness: a combination of authenticity, rebellion, transgression and the kind of personality that makes a character in a novel appealing.

At that point metal exploded. TV shows used its iconography, the media reported on it, and “kinder, gentler” forms of metal were produced for the audience that resulted. During this time, metalcore, post-metal/emo, indie-metal, alternative metal and atmospheric metal went ballistic.

The problem for us at this very moment, as Keith Kahn-Harris pointed out, is that we’re still drowning in an abundance of heavy metal. There are too many bands for fans to make meaningful choices. There are too many big blogs and news sites reporting the same news. All of us are drowning in digital downloads.

As Brian Pattison of Glorious Times opined in an interview:

The internet has made some things easier and perhaps better, but it has also done a lot of damage. Almost all of the personal relationships that happened back in the day don’t happen now. Kids today will visit a myspace page and download songs so they don’t get to build relationships with bands like we did way back before the internet. I still have letters from bands from back then, will kids today save their emails and myspace messages to look back upon in 20 years — I don’t think so.

In other words, convenience makes a product out of the music. With ease comes insincerity and disposability. Kevin Ord, editor of Codex Obscurum, points to the advantages of physical media in eliminating this problem:

I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.” Stuff like blogs just seem so disposable.

As predicted here before, underground metal is turning back toward physicality to avoid the information overload of the digital age.

Fans and zines are asking themselves variants of this question: What use are 10,000 bands when no one can hear them all, and thus good quality does not get bumped up the line above the rest? A genre dies when it becomes so flooded that it has no quality control. Everyone gets to participate that way, sure, but the lack of leaders means that participation alone soon becomes pointless.

Where this is interesting is the nexus of intersection between metal’s concept of “heavy” and this return to primal methods.

“Heavy” is a beatnik word referring to concepts and knowledge that invoke existential and other concerns. In general, heavy is a confrontation with the dark and final side of life, like death or loss. If socialization and happiness are “light,” heavy is the opposite. In social talk, everyone wins; in heavy talk, it is clear that some win and some lose, including lose their lives to war, disease, violence and cruelty. “Heavy” is everything we fear as individuals and refuse to talk about in polite conversation.

When Black Sabbath emerged in the late 1960s, they distinguished themselves thematically from other bands by being heavy. Everyone else was singing about how the Age of Aquarius was going to bring Enlightenment and peace to everyone; Black Sabbath was singing about the collapse of the world, the failure of hope, and the doom awaiting us all.

In the same way, the Internet boom of the late 1990s was based upon a Utopian vision. Our old worries were over; a new society based on information and knowledge was here! But as the years went on, it became clear that in all areas most of this information was commercial spam or otherwise manipulative, and that the effect of “information liberation” was to drown us in irrelevance.

People crave what the old offered: strong opinions in record reviews and writing, and zines that were willing to push better bands on top of the rest. They want a death of the commercial spam that our media have become, and to be able to pick five winners out of those 10,000 bands to become the basis of the next generation in a genre.

Thus heavy returns. Darkness and evil return. A rejection of peace, harmony, happiness and enlightenment of the new age is replaced with a reliance on primal truths, pagan fears and ancient impulses. Instinct overtakes rationality. Practicality replaces morality. The beast within rises again.