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


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.

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13 thoughts on “The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal”

  1. Jimmy says:

    El mundo subjetivo, simbólico, la doble hermenéutica como diría Giddens, y por el otro lado el mantenimiento del Status quo, como esencia de las clases medias y de las subcultura de los Metaleros del mundo

  2. Nito says:

    The concept to the Zyklon-B ep leaves little to the imagination (anything that depopulates the Earth is good)…

    1. Laozi says:

      Boyd Rice for the win.

  3. 1349 says:

    On the last paragraph:
    at high school, i was the best student in my class, AND the only metalhead.
    The same was in the parrallel class, except that they had a gal in this role.
    Could be third world specificity.

    1. Tree says:

      I think that the last paragraph was not a comment on ability to achieve scholastically, but rather motivation to do so.

      1. Tree says:

        Well, clearly you had the ability and the motivation, but that does not say much about how or why you achieved what you did, your underlying values.

      2. 1349 says:

        Of course. What i said doesn’t contradict that.

        In a stupid society, being conscientious and diligent automatically makes you a dissident if not outcast. That’s probably why i ended up listening to metal bands…

  4. hoodwink says:

    From a recent interview with Necrobutcher:

    “There is different music for different occasions. When I first wake up I like to listen to aggressive music like Napalm Death for example. Then when I’m eating breakfast I need to bring it down to something like Cypress Hill. Then I get in my car I like to listen to some car music, ZZ Top, the Beastie Boys, something like that. Before I go out on the town I like to listen to Motorhead, Pantera and at the end of the evening I might listen to the Rolling Stones from the 1970s. When I was a young man I would always listen to Voivod before going to sleep. It’s so intricate it’s really good to listen to before you sleep – like listening to your fridge. It’s not annoying, it’s comforting. But people listen to different things. It’s like with Quorthorn – he liked the Beatles! And everyone was like, ‘What the fuck?!’ But you know… [laughs]… some people will say, ‘Why do you listen to this shit and not metal?’ And yeah, we make metal – that is what comes out of us – but it is not necessary to listen to metal 24/7 to make it. I listen to a lot of aggressive music but it depends on what I’m doing. I don’t have any preference of music for when I’m in the shower but I like to listen to very aggressive music when I’m doing the dishes. The best albums to do the dishes to are Smear Campaign and Words From The Exit Wound by Napalm Death.”

    1. eman says:

      That’s kind of weird. I listen to death metal (usually Adremalech or Unleashed or Demigod these days) when I first wake up and start making breakfast. In the car (with a busted CD player) I have to resort to my handful of tapes so it’s either Racer X or MBV or Dino Jr. Death metal and other such music is not good for driving because the road noise and wind obscures the nuances of the songs. At work it’s classic rock or less often pop, depending on who becomes the radio tyrant. Then, after work, it’s something less hectic like Steve Vai or Eric Johnson if I’m not working on learning to play a new song. Later in the evening if I’m doing something creative it’s black metal or Ravelle or Lizst. I have specific music for washing dishes as well: Judas Priest or King Diamond or Manilla Road, because I can hear everything clearly through the din of the dishes. I don’t listen to anything before going to bed though. There is definitely a rhythm to each day, and music should be adjusted to fit the cycles. I’ve wondered if other people did that.

      1. EDS says:

        My music tastes match the seasons. Currently dark old school death metal in the vein of Incantation, Disciples of Mockery, and Demoncy. These bands match the cool and dark/cloudy climate I typically experience everyday during April.

  5. Tralf says:

    Unfortunately, the point of this article is lost on most metal fans. Ask them what qualities they like in metal, and you’ll usually get some hackneyed reply about brutality or instrumental skill or superficial ‘epicness’. They are blind to the ‘magical’ side of metal; all they can perceive is the literal. Fortunately, many of these fans are transient and will simply discard their old identity as a metal head and reinvent themselves into something equally trivial once their interest has run its course. But in the mean time the overabundance of idiots scares off the people who are capable of grasping the subtler side of metal.

  6. Lord Mosher says:

    I like listening to the bands that are not easy listens. For instance Immolation. I just can’t get into that band consciously! I try really hard to like it buy I just can’t. But then when I feel embarrased by something that occured to me, then I listen to Immolation immediately and all the pieces in the puzzle come together to make sense. Problem is, the next day I just can’t figure out how to enjoy the band again. Weird!

  7. It seems that only a man become a diehard conservative that he can fully embrace/understand metal.

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