In life, we seek that which has what we lack. An author who can write some way that we cannot becomes instantly fascinating, just like music which expresses what we lack words to convey. Underground metal attracts those who are seeking to explain in philosophical terms what the mood, emotions, atmosphere, and texture — almost like a wall scripture from an Egyptian tune — conveys.
This creates a huge divide between bands and fans, perhaps bigger than other genres which either simply express good times like pop, or make themselves explicitly political like later punk and 1960s music. We can see the divide really jut forth with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an early concept album which combined politics and social commentary into a general rejection of modernity, but this only became solidified with releases like Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing which intensified the assault on the emptiness; metal reflected that through its archaic futurism, a vision of history returning to points where it had been before, and pointed out that medieval stories and science fiction had a lot in common by sketching our modern world as a Heinlein-esque dystopia in the midst of rediscovering its soul.
In this way, unlike punk, metal got beyond the face value. It stopped discussing the world in terms of what exists now, and spoke instead to the spirit of humanity and our need for adventure, play, significance, and thymos, or being rewarded for being both good at something and good at being human in the context of our respective cultures. It focused less on how bad things were like punk, how to frame political arguments like 1960s music, or on raw personal emotion about the process like emo and folk; instead, it showed us a landscape, a mile-high perspective of humanity in the broader context of history, and symbolized our current situation in technocratic manipulations, gore, disease, emptiness, demonic possession, and ambient fate derived from an inner expanding emptiness.
This means that to make good metal, one cannot think in terms of face value… the spirit is the core, and all technique, aesthetics, and even method of wiring together riffs must serve that expression of spirit, something that is more profound than “emotion,” although it has an emotional component. Spirit means the shape of a Will toward more than functionalism alone, and more than solely social success, which sets metal apart from what the ninety percent of our society who are just adapting to their community and its trends will recognize. We are aliens because we think of the ancient past and distant future and recognize our current state as a stop along the way, a temporary condition of being mired in the swamp of our own solipsistic neurosis, before we again see clearly and get back on the path to something better.
Metal was conceived from the outset as an assault on popular music from a position within it — a kind of subversive rebellion against the norms of a weepy sentimentality and gross seductiveness, a reaffirmation of the masculine in a feminized culture. – Roger Scruton
Metal cannot be created from the outside in, like an academic or engineer, or from purely social conventions like figuring out “what people like” and delivering the image. Metal must be made from the inside out, meaning that first one must understand the spirit, then see it and its counterpoint in life, and express the conflict inside of a human mind — or indeed, any mind, including a universal one, i.e. not shared between people but encompassing all of reality — in terms of the expression of this spirit. Metal remains almost impossible to define because musically it borrows from everything, yet shapes that to its own vision of the world and philosophy of adventurous discovery, which leaves only spirit as the unifying and consistent force.
Sometimes, on this site, we encounter bands that on paper seem ideal: they have the right theory, the proper technical variation, a unique and quirky backstory, a style all of their own, and the production and aesthetics to match. Why, then, are these not celebrated? ask people caught in the moment. The answer is that these are outside in creations, designed to emulate and vary an amalgam of influences and inject their own unique personality, but they are not “about” the spirit or the worldview that it requires, which is not a dogma so much as a series of perceptual methods and values as to what makes, as Plato would say, “the best life.”
At the core, metal relies on using song to express a perception, a reaction, and a sentiment as to what we would prefer instead, something amorphous and obscure since it like all learning is esoteric, or requires us to understand it in order to appreciate it. When death metal writes about the horrors of life, it spurs us to see the need to balance those with beauties, much as heavy metal as a whole seeks to find beauty in distortion, darkness, death, violence, disease, and disintegration. Songs convey journeys like the epic stories of old, where an ingenue hero sets out without a concern for anything but himself, learns humility and reverence, and then returns to using the methods of war to set up a mirror of natural and divine order in himself and those around him. Like good stories, good songs are not about an idealized state, but a process of learning how the world works that prompts us to grow internally. Metal takes more after literature than pop does, but pop has more in common with the products on a shelf or symbolic religion, promising to solve all problems with this one easy step that does not require you to change or adapt.
All life is this: a song, a journey, an experience, a communication, the compilation of knowledge and self-discipline. The “on paper” bands do not do this, no matter how many boxes they tick off on the survey for What makes a great metal release? or even a brochure for death metal as a way of life. You cannot fake it; the artist first must make the journey, and no amount of compiling external factors, optimizing them, and adding unique bits will help, in the same way that randomly tossing odd instruments or influences from other styles into metal (lookin’ at you, Opeth, yourself a ripoff of Pan.Thy.Monium) does nothing but make for good sales copy.
The mission of this site changes with the phase of the genre, which — like Plato’s civilization cycles — has moved from a golden age of newness when clarity about the inner spirit existed, to a senescent stage where the best options imitate the past in hopes of controlling minds to like both the release and the “metalness” expressed in aesthetic form. When underground metal was new, this site should have featured more negative reviews; now that most bands are unimpressive and the average review will be “this takes all the elements you expect, adds some random quirks, and has some good parts but never really ties them into a whole expression larger than themselves or an expression of the metal spirit, so if you like aesthetic factors like this, you’ll like this release but I could take it or leave it” it makes little sense to write about what sucks, and only makes sense to pull out the few interesting bits — even if ultimately not great in themselves — to keep the continued dialogue about metal and its spirit alive. Consequently, those “on paper” bands rarely feature here, just like we filter out the endless churn of trends, imitations, and survey-ticked bands.
One cannot take life at face value. Politics offers us face value, as does consumerism of course, and social interactions are almost entirely comprised of it except among close friends who have gotten past trying to impress each other and moved on to enjoying the interaction and the people for their own merits. Punk failed in part because it took life too much at face value and never examined motivic or inner forces, and 1960s music failed because it was almost entirely face value, looking in a “feminized” (masculine aggression converted to passive searching for answers “out there” instead of creative production of the same) way for “solutions” to “problems” instead of figuring out what would make the best life, or even an interesting one. Metal should not follow that path; the “on paper” bands try to, and that is why you will not see them here.