Hearing metal without the baggage

A side-effect of these politically-divided times is how inured we as metal fans have become to hearing newer music unless the bands espouse an ideology running in sync with our private convictions. Undoubtedly, dwindling interest in what new bands have to say can be attributed to many causes: the steady decline in quality of metal, the jadedness that naturally comes with years of listening, and the shapeless suspicion that nothing new of note can possibly be done with this form of music. All of these are legitimate concerns in their own right, but there is also an unsaid condemnation lurking in the shadows, that emotional-compositional prowess is no longer enough to capture our attention, that metal bands have to be aligned with a specific system of extra-musical beliefs for them to avoid our ire or worse yet not recede into obscurity.

It shouldn’t be so and it wasn’t always so, either. Music ought to be judged on melody, structure, and emotional resonance in the abstract; the order of eminence of these criteria may vary, but their sanctity remains unimpeachable. We extracted these characteristics from the bands of our youth; somewhere along the way, the initial frisson and sense of danger that we associated with those bands grew dormant, but an appreciation of those three qualities never entirely went away. In fact, many metalheads can still summon a large chunk of that original thrill given the right state of mind, which speaks to nostalgia, yes, but also attests to the abiding quality of those works.

One tries to apply the same standard to newer bands; unfortunately, newer bands suffer the double handicap of lacking inspiration and existing in a world that like an extreme junkie always craves a little more. Structure, melody, and emotional resonance are no longer enough to satisfy the crowd; newer bands now have to also slot into the little niches that define us as Politically Aware Individuals (TM). Failing which, their best bet is to be sufficiently unthreatening, so we can bestow upon them anodyne platitudes like “sick” and “evil”, all the while subconsciously relieved that our precariously-surviving identity has had to endure no challenge to its foundation.

This is not to discount that every individual has a certain threshold of tolerance, arrived at either through social conditioning or studied introspection. Depending on this, he makes a decision on which manner of offence in the metal he listens to can be reasonably tolerated and efficiently compartmentalized, and which would induce a restless cognitive dissonance inside his mind too great to ignore and lead an honest life. If only that were to be the end of it, if only he hadn’t taken it upon himself to be the arbiter and fashioning force of outraged, popular opinion, if he hadn’t placed himself in one of two camps, a decision which by default forces him to assume a confrontational stance, if he had realized that this rigid bifurcation into left and right is in fact the underlying reason for his perennial unease, if he had embraced a more syncretic perspective on the world, if he had possibly considered metal in spirit as sound and poetry, ugly and beautiful by turn, instead of always reading a literal interpretation into it, if only, if only…well, he would perhaps then identify metal as the transcendent force for self-empowerment that it can be.

Sound and poetry; hear metal as such without the baggage we foist on it or the baggage we so masochistically accept from it to bear on our backs. Treat it like you would the confessions of a serial killer or some despised figure from history if you have to; or indeed an inheritance from distant forebears; as a scholar would, cultivate an enlightened detachment without becoming dissociated and it might just be possible to rediscover the honesty with which you heard this music for the first time.

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6 Responses to Hearing metal without the baggage

  1. JohnnyReb says:

    For me, the issue is not that bands profess the wrong political ideology in their music, but that they profess and ideology at all. Early metal was a journey to find one’s self with little or no persuasion one way or the other from the writers. Many bands now think they have already found themselves, which comes across as condescending and leading instead of allow for introspection.

    • JohnnyReb says:


      What I mean is, how can something be introspective and infinite, as the best black metal and death metal has always been, when the composer is relaying a definite message? That immediately closes the space for thought that is inherent in great metal.

  2. Erik the Red says:

    Since when is a composer NOT relaying a definite message, or expression of value? Metal-‘flavored’/’textured’ music expresses what the composer thinks (or is told by his bandmates, producer, label A&R) is already on listeners’ minds; no introspection is necessary (on the part of the composer or the listener) since the experience and the value judgements of it is already common ‘language’.

    Great metal, on the other hand, expresses what is in the composer’s mind (not the listener’s), and brings the listener to that world. That world may parallel in some respects the present world that both inhabit, but’s it’s the unique evaluation on the part of the composer (through the structure of his sounds; i.e. melody, harmony, tempo, texture, etc) that the listener resonates with (or not) . Great metal does not *seek* consensus or agreement, it brings it forth from its listeners.

    • JohnnyReb says:

      I disagree completely, as do the composers of great metal. They refuse to discuss the meaning of their lyrics because they wish the listener to be able to extract meaning for themselves. Some bands refuse to even print their lyrics in order to further obscure the meaning behind them. This is a theme common to many interviews of metal musicians. The general consensus is that there should not be one. Of course, great metal, and all great art, does not restrict the mind of its audience.

      • Erik the Red says:

        So, composers of great metal *aren’t* seeking to communicate with their audience via their music, but instead are looking to ‘obscure’ their meaning??

      • JohnnyReb says:

        Not quite. It depends on what you mean by communicate. Their music and lyrics were created for themselves, and those who choose to listen should have it impact them individually and independent of the meaning it had to the writer. I think that is more perchance interaction than purposeful communication.

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