If we consider tradition as conforming to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and modernism as the questioning and frequent renouncing of that same wisdom, then it becomes self-evident that heavy metal occupies a strange, chameleon-like, shape-shifting position between the two. On the one hand is metal’s emphatic rejection of social and political tradition, yet, paradoxically, on the other hand is metal’s stubborn orthodoxy. Which leads me to believe that metal weaves its own unique tradition around itself as a cocoon. This tradition may be inimical to the contemporary climate at first, iconoclastic even, basing itself on a foundation of abstract ideals, but once this tradition is established, metal changes mode from a revolutionary idiom to a conservative one. Metal creates its own narrative and then makes a virtue out of adherence to that narrative.
What the heck is this “post” thing then, and what does it have to do with metal? Post-thrash, post-black metal, but what does it all mean?
Postmodernism in metal, to me, is that which takes me out of the body proper of a piece of music, without concern for what has gone before, and places me in an alternate world governed by a different set of rules. The official definition of postmodernism is something along the lines of a fundamental mistrust of grand narratives, meaning reality as we know it is not a historical progression, moreover that reality itself is suspect. Think the mad jumble of colors in a Jackson Pollock painting, think the experimental prose in Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, think the surrealism of David Lynch’s Eraserhead or the irregular chronology of Christopher Nolan’s Memento; different media, all, yet they display the same plurality of perspective and blurring of edges around the subject of ultimate truth. Whether a thing such as ultimate truth exists is moot; but men need at least a concept of the straight and the narrow to conduct their affairs with some semblance of decisiveness.
These are clashing ways of looking at the world around us, and when one thinks about it, really the true and irreconcilable causes of ideological-philosophical conflict among men. What gives me pause however is when I wonder: what is a break from tradition? And if you look at history as a steady gradient – a negative gradient from the traditionalist angle, a necessary gradient from the modernist view – then precisely what isn’t a break from tradition? Every paradigm shift must seem too drastic to tolerate to the status quo, even things that we take for granted as paragons of traditional values must have had their birth pangs amidst a cacophony of outrage. We hear stories of how ridiculous and untalented and downright musically dissonant Black Sabbath were thought to be when they began yet half a century later they have been absorbed into the same greater narrative which they were thought to have originally disrupted.
Does this mean that we have always existed in a postmodernist world? That every individual revolution, however minuscule in scope, ruptures the fabric of a grand narrative and sets up its own little bubble of self-importance?
Well, semantically, yes, but practically, not quite. As human beings interacting in a world of material things, bound by rules of space and time, we don’t think of history in terms of minuscule gradients. We look at chunks of time instead, passages around which we can safely orient ourselves. The bridge leading us across the river is but a means to get to a different place; on reaching the other bank, we gain the benefit of a new perspective but, while in the act of crossing itself, we don’t really stop and consciously dwell on the planks which build that bridge under our feet.
Bear with me because I’m winging it here, but time passed affords us the luxury of looking back and casting an event in the light of a significant paradigm shift. In the time of their happening, however, events share more than a little with their surroundings; they have to, for from where else would they draw the impetus to be? They’re not without the spark of creativity to be sure but far too often we underestimate just how hard it is to birth something entirely original into the world. Nothing comes from nothing, after all; to metal, this would mean Black Sabbath making the occasional flowery concession to their prevailing climate while simultaneously wearing the robes of doom and gloom. Or Slayer disjointedly breaking into archaic NWOBHM-isms while laying down the template for death metal.
But a postmodernist approach self-consciously tries to manufacture a something out of nothing. That is its entire reason to exist; not to be a natural reaction to the things it sees around itself, but rather to challenge them, to insist on interpreting them in ways foreign to our understanding of the world. A creative and untethered imagination can make as many interpretations as it wishes; it is free to discard the rule of Occam’s Razor and indulge its fancy, even when applied to the simplest of subjects, and who’s anybody to fault it for its presumption? Or, as those subscribing to such an approach would, in all likelihood, be wont to say, its lack of presumption.
Is it possible to extrapolate all of this to metal? When applied to metal, I believe postmodernism is more an approach than any one stylistic trait. It is a callous dismissal of the whole in favour of the individual moment, a moment drunk on its blown-up sense of importance, a moment that disrupts the causal nature of music for no other reason than because it can.