Most attempts to understand metal have focused on lyrics and interviews with musicians, which both fails because they usually pick lower achieving musicians and because most people do not consciously know why they do what they do, especially in artistic genres based on emotion, gesture, and metaphor.
If we want to find out what philosophy underlies heavy metal, it makes sense to look at the mechanism of its sound that is also responsible for its appeal: the distorted riff in a through-composed or at least variable-form song, in contrast to the formulaic and harmony-based approach of most mainstream rock, blues, pop, country, and jazz.
Let us look at the origins of metal and its development through its last useful phase, Nordic black metal, to see what is afoot. If we get away from what metallians say about metal, to looking at what they do, it becomes easier to understand what they are trying to express, since most musicians do not seem to possess the ability to articulate their motivations or ideations beyond vague aesthetic impressions, sonic effects, and moods.
Metal has consistently emphasized the following:
- Darkness: specifically, metal finds beauty in darkness and what is conventionally considered wrong, chaotic, and ugly, like distorted guitar and wailing vocals.
- Disharmony: more accurately, metal songs are not built around harmony, but on the relationship between riffs like an internal dialogue leading to discovery, often chromatic.
- Ends-over-means: songs take the form implied by whatever they are trying to express, and in an unsystematic way, expand organically, implying that expression is more important than form.
- Power-worship: metal songs do not aim to achieve pleasant sounds to humans, but to wrest from disturbing sounds a sensation of power, and from that to reveal a beauty, pleasure, and joy to live hidden behind the obscure.
- Amoral: where most songs focus on “protest rock” and setting up a harmony loop so that vocals can hammer out a message, metal aims to make its message ambiguous, metaphorical, indirect, and non-universal by having the vocals complement the riff.
In this, we can see the roots of the metal philosophy: a worship of power like that of nature which does not concern itself with human opinion or survival, a mythological-historical view that considers past and future as a continuity of struggle, a study of the Will which emerges from organic chaos, and a pursuit of a complex language to express that which humans refuse to notice.
Metal expresses a form of naturalism or appreciation for the patterns of nature and its seemingly arbitrary and chaotic strikes which, over time and repetition, manifest into an emergent order. Riffs start out without context, assert themselves with relativity, and then start an internal dialogue which reveals a journey between mental states through a very real and dynamic, almost physical conflict.
It minimizes the human role, dominating the individual in waves of thunderous and alien sound, as a means of escaping the individualism of our time. This in itself provides a strong philosophical message: we are not the focus, but the observer, and the forces of nature much vaster than us blow outside of us and through us. This allows us to see the importance of mythology and history: the continuity of larger forces, producing cycles, reducing human self-importance as unintended consequences emerge.
That suggests a philosophy of a worship of power that recognizes the need for darkness as well as light to balance each other and create new emptiness to explore, an inherently realistic philosophy, which is an opposite to humanistic ones, or those based on human judgments, opinions, desires, feelings, and perceived needs. The latter give absolute power to the human and place no requirement upon that human to consider the broader context than the self and its wishful thinking or self-expression.
This takes us through the full loop of the metal thought process: much like metal finds beauty in darkness, it finds human freedom in freedom from human freedom, or in other words, in having a goal of adapting to reality rather than sliding into the abyss of wants and other conjectural things. Metal sees what humans fear, the external world, as more logical than the one-way human desire for more power, and can be seen more as a worship of external power than a demand for individualistic, social, and humanistic power based on a presumed obligation to fellow human equals.
Radical realism of this nature demands an ends-over-means approach since it recognizes only effects in reality, and not human intentions or judgments, as important. This rejects conventional morality for something more like natural selection, saying that what succeeds matters and everything else becomes irrelevant. Following the medieval and primeval nature of metal, this speaks to founding of civilization more than existing as a socialized, domesticated, and infantilized person within an overbuilt society.
Metal bands frequently describe “trends” or fads as the enemy of all good things. This viewpoint makes sense in the context of the metal philosophy: external reality is true, human wishes distract from that, and our only solution can be found in “looking within” both ourselves and the complexity of nature, much as metal finds beauty within what most would describe as noise.
While this may not be the philosophy that metal bands state or are even aware of, it is the philosophy they live, and has more in common with the ancient Greco-Roman and Nordic communities which saw the human ego as an impediment to mental clarity and therefore, a threat to existence. Only through a celebration of nihilism and death can one escape too much humanity and see humans in their natural context, as one species of many struggling against its self-destructive impulse toward solipsism in order to survive.