[This is Part 1 in what hopefully turns into a longer series of posts on related topics. There are mostly questions to be found here but interested readers can leave feedback and/or examples of metal that transcends its ideological constraints]
Absolute music is a term that gained currency in nineteenth century thought, indicating a music that could subsist of its own accord, without pleading to external influences as projected by underlying ideology and context, or solipsistic, personal bias. Music, considered to be the most universal and divine of arts, the one most in tune with the ineffable currents of the human soul, was thought to have descended and degraded from its immanent state of perfection once it allowed worldly occupations to adulterate its initially homogeneous state. Proponents of the absolute music theory championed the primacy of an instrumental music unencumbered by any form of literal, descriptive content riding its coattails; the impressionable listener’s nascent perceptions would thus not be moulded by that which was not inherent in the music. The crests and troughs contained within the music, and only they, would act as his guide and chaperone, carrying him along in their natural way of motion.
While this feels like a laudable mission to elevate music above its earthly plane of creation, it seems to give short shrift to the fact that music is after all created by man and so is subject to his preconceived ideas and contemporary train of thought, if not of conscious will, then on some subliminal level, if not drawn in stark and acute contrast, then at least as a hazy image lacking definition but with a general premise nonetheless. To talk of absolute music is to automatically assume a tabula rasa state of mind at the instant of creation and so dismiss the preceding chain of cause-and-effect. Even making room for the mysterious forces of inspiration, these can only sit, at times uncomfortably, atop an already existing disposition. Nothing comes from nothing, so goes the old argument, and inspiration is only the midwife that brings a faint predilection into greater relief.
Can this idea of an absolute music, untenable though it may appear, be applied to heavy metal? If so, how should it be adapted to fit the very specific, idiosyncratic contours of our music? And, finally, which among its primary strains are best suited to wear such a title, and what are the characteristics that would do justice to it?
Words and images have been important to metal from the beginning, and it would be futile to dismiss them out of hand because entire sub-genres of metal have been built out of these same words and images and ideologies as constant companions. Metal bands have written on a veritable cornucopia of topics related to the human condition, whether seen from the perspective of subject or as an out-of-the-body, impersonal take on the universe. Fantasy, outsider lifestyles, gore, Satanism, nature worship, and exploring the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious are all integral to metal mythology, but extrapolating their core to an as-close-to-indivisible-as-possible essence reveals a few constants:
- A fighting willingness to confront the darker underbelly of human life.
- To accept this darkness not as man’s “flawed” state, and so hypothesizing a fall from grace as it were, but as part of his fundamental nature, without which, ironically, he would be less than human.
- Finally, giving free leash to this socially verboten nature by using it as metaphor for self-empowerment. Metal talks of things that fall distinctly outside the suffocating threshold of tolerance as defined by mass culture.
Can metal then develop a living narrative along the above lines without depending on words and images? Moreover, can we as listeners even begin to assume an unbiased, equanimous frame of mind before encountering this music, ridding ourselves of the clutter that invariably gathers through conditioning? The mind is all too eager to make associations where none exist, drawing in references from the time and space that it resides in, an indictment that this blog is not entirely guiltless of either. Pure music, devoid of ideological baggage, can broadly indicate swells and troughs and ambivalence found in nature and in emotion, but can it flesh out the rich, and perhaps fiercely subjective, tapestry described above?
Initial attempts to delineate any such method of thinking are bound to be clumsy but are worth thinking about as tentative steps taken towards establishing a framework for placing metal in. Metal cannot be heard in a purely positivist context for that ruins its magic, but nor can it be held victim to solely personal whim. The latter is the bog of non-committal relativism that equal-opportunity warriors call home and is no place for this music.