The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

April 10, 2014 –

woodstock

As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

Repo Man re-issued on Blu Ray

March 6, 2013 –


Repo Man
dir. Alex Cox
92 minutes, Criterion, $28 (Blu Ray)

alex_cox-repo_man_blu_rayImagine yourself in 1984. No, not the anti-totalitarian novel 1984, but the year. Ronald Reagan is president; the economy is struggling. It’s uncertain whether at any minute the US and USSR will exchange nuclear weapons with one another, annihilating life on earth.

They’ve stopped doing the nuclear drills in schools because even the dimwitted teachers have finally realized what ICBM means. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile: it gets here so fast they won’t tell you it’s coming. There will be no warning, only an artificial sun eating your cities, evaporating your friends and family, obliterating your memories.

Even more, American society is in free-fall. 1968 brought a huge upheaval and now it’s hippies versus people in suits every day but the hippies are more popular. The media generally takes their side; industry sides with the suits. Average people are squeezed in the middle, just trying to find food and lodging in a world that now thanks to technology demands more of them and costs more just to survive.

Those are the obvious challenges. Underneath the skin, there’s a great deal of doubt. We fought wars to end wars; we got a Cold War. Society seems to be falling apart. People in general seem to lack a reason to live except a fear of poverty and death. As a result, the nervousness grows and people become more slavelike to jobs, ideologies, religions, drugs, sex, alcohol, corporations and lifestyle justifications. It’s a Nietzschean feast of schadenfreude and a vast fear and trembling.

Into this mess explodes the hardcore and thrash movements. The formative elements of hardcore punk floated around in the late 1970s between Motorhead, the Sex Pistols, and thousands of nameless two-chord bands, but the genre really blew up in the early 1980s with Discharge, the Exploited, and Amebix in the UK and Black Flag, the Cro-Mags, and Minor Threat in the USA. Riding that wave came the punk rock bands, like Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys, who offered a softer and funnier version of the same. Following as well were the thrash bands, like Suicidal Tendencies and DRI, who mixed hardcore songs with metal riffs to make short fast bursts of fury and discontent with society.

The best way to chronicle this punk scene would not be to focus on the music, because then you end with a standard rockumentary in which musicians reveal that, if articulating things were their real skill, they wouldn’t be musicians. Instead they express themselves through sound, which is generally more reliable in that it’s harder to cleverly re-define its root terms and subvert it. To chronicle this scene, you have to show what they see, and then play the music so that the two join in the middle.

If any movie showed hardcore for what it was, and also explained the era to those who were not aware of it, Repo Man is that movie. Like its inspiration Naked Lunch, it is a collage of nihilism and post-modern boredom, mixed with the terror of a new kind of totalitarian society based on consumer choice (more like 1984‘s inspiration, Brave New World). The fundamental vapidity of the people around you is what dooms you to conform yourself, or be smashed beneath the grinding wheels of the industrial apparatus. It is a paranoid, unstable time. Repo Man shows us this world through the eyes of a teenage Otto, who is an everyman of the era in that he has connected to fundamentally nothing. His parents are aliens, jobs are pointless and ruled by petty tyrants, school was a blow-out, and even his fellow punks let him down with their selfishness and lack of vision. Adrift, he wanders through the rusted mechanical ruins of L.A. until he is rescued by a mercenary-minded repossessor.

“Repossessor” was a dirty world back then, much like we might view organ harvesters now. Repo men were the people who took your car when you couldn’t afford the payments, and this happened to a good number of people. It could happen in front of your friends and family, announcing to the world your failure. In a society basing itself on capitalism as a means of differentiating itself from the socialist East, this type of failure was emotionally crushing. As you can imagine, a repo man was not the sort of person anyone looked up to. Society’s lepers, they fed off the scraps in the dump of society’s excesses. You can imagine how for most people, a transition to repo man is like living death. But to a punk, society is already a dead man walking and existing in it is already offensively zombie-like. So what’s to lose?

Otto joins the repo team with his mentor, Bud, who is outwardly selfish but ultimately more dedicated to expression of his own frustrated emotions. Together, they raid the L.A. basin for overdue car notes and in the process, encounter a prize beyond their wildest dreams — a car worth $20,000 (now probably $80k). Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, or the holy grail, this car divides people against one another and reveals what characters are really made of. In a world dedicated to self-interest, the question is whether self-interest will win out, or whether a higher (or lower) principle will be found to save the day.

Splashed throughout with energetic punk music from Suicidal Tendencies, the Circle Jerks, The Plugz, Black Flag and Iggy Pop, Repo Man brings punk culture to a wider audience by showing us the absurdity of our time and the helplessness of the characters within it, so long as they adopt its values and behave in the ways it teaches them to. Disturbing, funny, nuanced and accurate in its portrayal of a society that has lost the path to health, Repo Man will explain to you why you walk on the other side of the street from mainstream society, and suggest an esoteric path that will lead you all of the way away.