(A long-time NCS supporter who calls himself Utmu has written a paper for a college course about metal. We’re already somewhat involved, having published three previous pieces by Utmu that were sort of groundwork for the paper (here, here, and here). So we’ve decided to post the pay-off, especially because it’s likely to be controversial. Please do give us and Utmu your reactions in the comments.)
I’ve been excited about this for some time now, as my Facebook friends can attest (just ask them, I wouldn’t shut up about it for a week or two). I realize that this paper tends to go against what NCS is about in that it is somewhat bleak, but I think this needs to be said, and discussion is always important.
I’m not sure how much context I put in this paper, but if any of you have any questions about anything in this I’ll do my best at answering them. I also realize that this is a pretty divisive topic insofar that I’m on one side and virtually everyone else is on the other. But it’ll be interesting hearing your comments and concerns.
It should be noted that this is my informed opinion, and although I believe that there could be some objectivity to art, I’m skeptical of objectivity in relation to some of the topics discussed in my paper.
I will ask one thing of you all, I’d like to try an uncommon form of argumentation (if any of you feel like debating this). Try to use argumentation in the form of proofs. For more information on this form of argumentation, please listen to Daniel “Awesomebeard” Cohen at 2:32:
Before we get to the paper I’d like to thank my Composition instructor for her help and support. I’d also like to show gratitude to some names you all are probably familiar with. I’d like to thank Dane Prokofiev and Andy Synn for their assistance with philosophical topics—you’ve been very helpful! Thanks to Phro for reading it and giving me some feedback. Thanks to Islander for posting this paper, and I’d like to thank all of those who responded to the survey. And finally, I’d also like to give a big “thank you” to Helm for allowing me to use him as a source, and allowing me to come to him for subsequent elucidation regarding heavy metal, and if I remember correctly philosophical and/or artistic concepts.
Two final things: In this paper, I think I present postmodernism as the sole cause of heavy metal’s stagnation, etc. But more recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the case is more complex and that a variety of factors led to stagnation, not simply postmodernism. Also, I am considering submitting this paper to the upcoming journal Metal Music Studies, which accepts papers from both academics and laymen (I’m an undergraduate, so I assume I’d be included in the latter).
POSTMODERN CHARACTERISTICS IN HEAVY METAL MUSIC
This essay focuses on heavy metal after it became a postmodern form of music. First, it defines what postmodernism is based on several concepts that make up postmodernism; second, it applies those concepts to heavy metal; third, the possible stagnation and/or death of metal is discussed as a potential result of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Finally, a point is made that, in order for us to define what is and is not metal, we need a working definition of what metal itself is defined by. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the current state of heavy metal to metal fans and/or introduce new concepts with which to think about the genre.
How do you feel about heavy metal music? What of music in general? If heavy metal or other forms of music interests you, then the information contained herein may also be of interest. Heavy metal is a rather obscure form of popular music, but its obscurity misrepresents its diversity and its size. Indeed, there is even a large subculture based on the raucous music, and many blogs exist that document heavy metal news, gossip, examinations, and other pertinent pieces of information. This paper is essentially an examination of postmodernism and how it relates to heavy metal. Postmodernism is a complicated topic that needs elucidation, impacts a wide variety of things, and may have something to do with heavy metal’s possible stagnation, or even death. Additionally, the categorization of genres is also an important part of this discussion, and I will discuss the concept of the Death of the Author in relation to genre categorization.
Characteristics of Postmodernism
As it was stated earlier, postmodernism is complicated, and it’s not simply a complicated concept, it’s a complicated body of concepts. For example, according to Strinati (1993), both time/space perplexities and the eventual disuse of meta-narratives are concepts that characterize postmodernism (para. 13 and 14). Speaking of meta-narratives, they play a key part in postmodernism. Strinati (1993) goes on to speak of how postmodernism posits that meta-narratives are becoming less and less important, and how postmodernists are critical of meta-narratives (para. 13 & 14). This is interesting as Helm also puts a major emphasis on meta-narratives, although Helm and Strinati seem to differ when it comes to what narrative is left over.
In particular, the pair differ in that Strinati (1993) says that a key issue with postmodernism is that it argues for the idea that meta-narratives are an undesirable thing; however, he then implies that postmodernism is a meta-narrative in itself and even asks “Or is postmodernism the last of the meta-narratives?” (para. 40). Helm (personal communication, 2013) has stated that capitalism is the last of the grand narratives—it should be noted that grand narratives make up meta-narratives, however I think the two can be used interchangeably in this instance due to the varied meaning behind them when used by sources—and postmodernism being the last of the grand narratives is a result of the Soviet Union’s becoming Russia and the Second World War; he also states that postmodernism is the period after capitalism “won” (responses 13 & 37). I think both points are reasonable. Helm’s position makes sense due to the fact that there is little trace of anything other than capitalism in the world now, but Strinati’s position makes sense because there is no reason for postmodernism to be considered anything but a meta-narrative—or at least a narrative of some sort, depending on the definition used. Perhaps postmodernism and capitalism could be seen as two sides of the same coin; as two grand narratives as part of a meta-narrative. Narratives are not the only characteristic of postmodernism, but they are a major one.
Other characteristics of postmodernism are wide-ranging, such as style over substance, and a flirtation with consumerism. Postmodernism seems to have a lot to do with consumerism, and this makes sense when we look at it through the eyes of Helm, who places an emphasis on capitalism. Strinati says that:
Postmodernism has links with some long-standing ideas about the scale and effects of consumerism and media-saturation as central aspects of the modern development of industrial capitalist societies. One schematic indication of this is the attempt to account for the emergence of postmodernism in terms of the argument that during the twentieth century the economic needs of capitalism have shifted from production to consumption. (Strinati, D., 1993, para. 29)
This seems to imply that postmodernism was a result of the production-to-consumption transference, which also seems as if it would makes sense to Helm as well. Strinati (1993) also states that art has become a way of advertising (to get consumers to consume) and is a product in itself (para. 11).
The idea of art-as-product being a postmodern characteristic (at least in a strictly postmodern fashion) is flawed, I say this because of the fact that Renaissance painters were commissioned to make art for the Catholic Church, and they existed during a pre-Modern time (in terms of art history, not history in general). However, it goes hand-in-hand with the capitalism-as-narrative idea. But simply knowing about postmodernism isn’t enough; let’s examine these and other postmodern characteristics in relation to heavy metal.
Metal in the Postmodern Era
Based on what Helm (personal communication, 2013) says, the postmodern era of metal began in the 90s, although it’s important to note that there is a caveat to this: one interprets movements by the narratives to which they subscribe (response 17, see also 34 & 37). So when analyzing something such as postmodernism, concepts like when the postmodern era began are subjective and arbitrary. However, I think Helm’s position is reasonable, considering how the Soviet Union became Russia after the Cold War (which was, in part, a war between communism and capitalism), and capitalism supposedly overcame all other grand narratives.
In his list of postmodern characteristics, Strinati (1993) includes the concept of style-over-substance; this is important when we consider that heavy metal has a distinct style of dress (para. 9). Heavy metal fans (hereafter referred to as “metalheads”) have recently played a part in the resurgence of the wearing of denim vests with band patches on them, which was originally a trend in the 80s for metalheads. The vest is now a form of postmodern dress in that it references another time period. A respondent to a survey I conducted stated the following:
I would say metal isn’t really stagnating, but perhaps the extra-musical (superficial) aspects are losing their impact; things like corpse-paint and running themes (gags) like “being metal”. I think a lot of bands are struggling to find identity and separate themselves from other bands, so they focus on the superficial things like being “brutal” or “epic” and they forget to just write good music. So I suppose there is a sense of stagnation, but only if you focus on the imitators and those bands who are just in it for the party (and they’ll jump ship to rock n’ roll when the party’s over). (Anonymous, 2013, response 5)
While the respondent references the question posed at first, he or she clearly acknowledges the fact that some bands try to emphasize style over substance. For example, in the technical death metal scene, there are many bands that are indistinguishable from one another simply because they focus on playing technical music, rather that writing something interesting. And this concern over appearances is present in other subgenres: bands in the deathcore and brutal death metal scene focus on trying to be brutal, bands in the black metal scene try to be grim and misanthropic. This idea of trying to appear as something based on how you seem rather than how you compose music is ubiquitous in heavy metal culture, although it has existed for nearly metal’s entire lifespan, rather than more recently (this does not mean that it doesn’t contribute to metal’s current postmodern state). There is another way postmodernism presents itself in metal, and I’ll explain it using that last genre I mentioned: black metal.
In the 90s, black metal hit its peak, but towards the end of the decade, black metal bands (such as Mayhem) changed their sound and began incorporating more elements from other genres of music—whether they knew it or not. More recently, metalheads have noticed several newer black metal bands that exemplify postmodernism, such as Krallice or Liturgy. Post-black metal (at least in its more recent incarnation) is postmodern in that it combines two different genres (post-rock and black metal), one already being a postmodern form of music. This embodies an aspect of postmodernism that Helm (2013, personal communication) mentioned: the combination of genres (response 13). It’s possible that this commingling of genres is a form of coping with anxiety that was born from the loss of a grand narrative (Helm, 2013, personal communication, response 13).
Strinati (1993) also touched on a similar subject in his paper: he mentions the movie Blade Runner and notes that it mixes several influences from different periods of time (para. 20). There are clear parallels between the mixing of influences and the mixing of genres, although it isn’t a perfect fit; I will expound on this in a later section. In the same paragraph where he mentions Blade Runner, Strinati (1993) also notes that the mixing of these influences from different time periods are also a form of time confusion—another trait of postmodernism (para. 20). This is also observable in heavy metal, as some bands mix subgenres from different time periods (like doom metal and black metal) and some bands even play subgenres like thrash metal or death metal, even though those subgenres’ original movements have ended. But there is an issue with these revivals and genre-mixing: the possible stagnation and death of heavy metal.
More recently, I have been enraptured by the idea that heavy metal may be stagnating, or even dead. If it could qualify for either one of these states of being (or nonbeing), it’s possible that postmodernism has a part in that. Both Helm and Strinati have something to add to this topic, and the respondents of my survey most definitely have opinions on it, although they may have missed the mark. The concept that metal is either stagnating or dead could have interesting ramifications if it were to be widely believed by metalheads. It could lead to innovation, or it could lead to droves of metalheads leaving their beloved genre; I find the latter to be extremely unlikely, impossible even. But if it is in fact stagnating or dead, there have to be reasons concerning why that is so.
Helm speaks often of narratives, and Strinati also mentions them; indeed, it seems they are very important due to their influence over society. As I stated before, the prevailing of capitalism over communism may have ushered in postmodernism, which now influences heavy metal. Narratives could be so important in fact, that they may be part of the reason that metal could be in a state of stagnation or death. Helm (personal communication, 2013) explains that perhaps people simply “expect [metal] to be alive” and continues to say that if our definition of whether metal is dead or not rests on whether it has “a message and agency” and continues “…then yes, Heavy Metal is dead” (response 24). But this is not the sentiment of all metalheads.
In preparation of writing this essay, I conducted a survey on a heavy metal weblog called No Clean Singing, asking several questions that centered around the idea that heavy metal may be stagnating or even dead. The responses I received were, generally speaking, extremely opposed to the idea that heavy metal was stagnating (only two respondents mentioned the word “dead” and it seems as if only one of them was using it in a response to my use of the word). For example, one respondent gave the following answer to the question “Is heavy metal stagnating? Is there a lack of originality?”:
F*** no! In fact, I was trying to explain to someone the other day how metal has essentially evolved to the point of encompassing all other genres – in the sense that there’s jazz-infused metal, symphonic and orchestral metal – and even more ‘movie soundtrack-style’ orchestral metal. This is particularly apparent in Xerath, Mechina, which is based around a theme that could be a movie, versus Septic Flesh’s Great Mass, which is a more a traditional album with individual songs. Panopticon just put out a bluegrass-hillbilly metal album. There are many more examples of cross-over and pollination of ideas from various sources. Obviously I’m not saying that cross-over doesn’t happen in other genres, it’s just that other genres are much less varied and more restrained, whereas metal is truly flourishing with all kinds of creativity spreading in different directions. (anonymous, 2013, response 9)
The respondent mentions several genre combinations such as jazz and metal, bluegrass and metal, and symphonic music and metal. These are all postmodern efforts on some level, as they combine genres in a way that keeps the parts of the original styles completely intact. But is simply combining genres enough to stave off stagnation, or is there more to it?
Assuming that we have defined a band as metal (more on this later), there is a portion of Strinati’s paper that can shed light on this topic. What he says could be quite useful as an analytical tool to determine whether something could be seen as vibrant, or innovative:
So what was distinctive about rock’n roll, for example, was not the fact that it too borrowed from, and based itself upon, already existing forms of music, but that it used these to construct something new. Rock’n roll, as is commonly accepted, arose out of the cross-cutting influences exerted by country and western, on the one hand, and urban rhythm and blues, on the other. The result was not, it is argued, a postmodern amalgam in which country and rhythm and blues stayed recognizably the same, but a novel and original fusion–rock’n roll. The story of soul music was similar, since this is said to have arisen out of the coming together of gospel and blues within black American culture. Yet again the consequence was said to be something strikingly new and different, not a sound which maintained the relatively separate identities of gospel and blues. (Strinati, D., 1993, para. 27)
By this definition, it seems as if it would be difficult to stave off stagnation; apparently mixing genres is not enough if we go by what Strinati says. The music must be more than the simple sum of the music’s parts. I think this is a perfectly rational way to look at innovation in music, as there is a clear division between genres; however, when genres are mixed, it doesn’t seem to bring anything other than the sum of its parts. Given what Strinati has laid out, it seems that many bands in this postmodern era would not be playing innovative or “new” music, which, considering what the respondents to my survey had to say, is quite surprising.
Most of the respondents to the survey that gave examples of innovation pointed at bands like deafheaven, Sigh, or Panopticon (anonymous, 2013, responses 2 & 9 respectively). All of these bands fuse genres, but don’t really seem to build on them. Sigh, in their latest album, had elements of a plethora of genres: 70s rock/metal, black metal, classical, jazz; Panopticon made an album from bluegrass and black metal, and deafheaven composed a post-rock and black metal fusion album. Based on Strinati’s definition of innovation, none of these bands are innovative. It seems that innovation is hard to come by if we don’t consider genre mash-ups to be new.
But what if we did? So far, everything seems to be pointing to stagnation and there seems to be a correlation between postmodernism and stagnation and/or death, but what if these preconceived notions are false? The mixing of musical genres may not bring anything new, but Strinati’s definition does not account for the execution of those genres that were mashed together, so to speak. The question of whether a certain genre of music is dead or stagnating, or alive and thriving could be said to sit on a thin line; and I think the question of whether or not the execution of a genre “mash-up” could be innovative should be explored further.
There is a concept in deconstruction that involves form and function, and for the purpose of this paper, this concept is very important. Function, according to deconstruction, takes precedence over form (Aylesworth, 2013, para. 36). To elaborate, if a band uses post-rock elements to make metal, it is making metal, not post-rock. This is crucial, as it is a way of defining whether or not what a band plays can be described as metal. It’s crucial because if we cannot categorize a band or genre as metal, how do we say whether the output of the subgenre or band is making innovations (or doing the opposite) in the genre as a whole?
But of course, the musicians’ intention may not matter at all; it could be the listener’s interpretation that matters:
…for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, to restore the status of the reader.) (Barthes, n.d., para. 3)
The concept of the Death of the Author should be considered when speaking of metal, as it should with every form of art; the word “author” can be replaced with the word “musician” and “text” can be replaced with the word “album.” If I feel that Whitechapel is not death metal with hardcore elements, rather, that it is hardcore with death metal elements, I am correct when we look at it from the point of view of the Death of the Author—it is my opinion and interpretation that matters, not the musicians’.
But which of these two ideas should take precedence? Should the musician have total control over what genre they fall in, or should the listener have the final say regarding who is what? Should both apply? I think the most feasible answer is to say that they both do.
The artists obviously have domain over what their music sounds like, and they can call it what they want. But the listener can also play the genre categorization game, and interestingly enough, the listener’s definition of what a band is can quickly shape how other listeners perceive that band as well. So, if we look at Barthes’ point that we should let the author die in order to allow ourselves to come to our own conclusions, why shouldn’t we also let the reader die? The only way in which we can avoid both the author and the reader is if we refrain from paying attention to media or others who are interested in what we choose to indulge in. This is difficult as heavy metal has come to rely on an online community that discusses music on a daily basis, both as news and as a forum. Are we to shut off all others and do our own thinking about heavy metal without any influence? This is an absurd idea as it’s incredibly difficult to execute if you are already absorbed in the community in some way or another—and many, many, metalheads are already at that point, and I doubt that new blood will avoid conversing about music—metal is a subculture in itself, and therefore is inherently social.
It could be argued that the author and the other readers are equal in their influence, and this means that both should be equally important. We should not eschew the artist’s viewpoint of what genre they are for the listener’s viewpoint, nor the listener’s for the artist’s. Foucault (2009) quotes Beckett, saying: “What does it matter who is speaking?” (para. 3). We should ask more than this; we should be asking four questions: “Who is speaking? Who is listening? What do they have to say? Are they logical?” It seems music is not the domain of either the artist or the audience; it could be said that it is the domain of both, and following this logic, we should arrive at our own conclusions based on the observations of three parties: the artist, the listeners, and ourselves. Is philosophy itself not largely based on discussion?
This paper is essentially an examination itself, and in it I examine postmodernism and how it relates to heavy metal. Postmodernism is a complicated topic that needs elucidation, it impacts a wide variety of things, and it may have something to do with heavy metal’s possible stagnation, or even death. Additionally, the categorization of genres is also an important part of this discussion, and I have expanded upon that by invoking the Death of the Author. We have explored some of the characteristics of postmodernism such as style-over-substance, consumerism, and narratives. Another topic we explored was the application of postmodern characteristics in heavy metal, for example genre-mixing, and style-over-substance. We also discussed whether or not heavy metal is stagnating or dead; and finally we entertained how Death of the Author, and the “Death of the readers” might pertain to heavy metal. In the end, postmodernism remains a complex issue that has real-world ramifications, especially in respect to heavy metal.
Aylesworth, G. Postmodernism. (2005, 2013). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/
Barthes, R. (n.d.). Death of the Author. Aspen. Retrieved from http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes
Hamrick, J.T. (2013, June 25). Reflections in the Void: The Survey
[Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.nocleansinging.com
Strinati, D., (1993). The Big Nothing? The Contemporary Culture and the Emergence of Postmodernism. Innovation in Social Sciences Research, 4(1). Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.libproxy.dtcc.edu/ehost/detail?sid=4dac7f4b-852b-48c6-9ecc-740590a1c362%40sessionmgr11&vid=1&hid=19&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=sih&AN=9707202883
I read the previous entries of this topic as well, and I found it a quite enjoyable en very well-written read; so congratulations on that!
However, I am curious about some form of ‘final verdict’, since at the end of this paper the conclusion functions more or less as a summary of what has been discussed previously, while I was hoping for some sort of speculation about whether or not you think metal really HAS actually stagnated or died, or else to what extent.
Furthermore, you make statements concerning (1) the stagnation and death of metal, (2) the fact that fusion between metal and other genres does not accomplish to be more than the sum of its parts, (3) that genre-boundaries are well-defined phenomena and (4) metal is a postmodern form of music. However, I don’t recognize motives or arguments with regards to how you came up with these statements, whereas personally I’d find it most interesting to read about why you state the things that you do (which also makes it easier to either agree or disagree with you). Perhaps your paper does not aim at either proving or disproving a point, but it felt like you did.
Also, I’d like to comment on the state of metal in my opinion. It’s become a long read, so apologies for that.
Personally, I have never liked the way things are going for metal as much as I do now. The direction I am talking about is best demonstrated by recent album releases of bands that in my opinion are frontrunners of innovation in metal, which are to name a few: Gojira, Alcest, Altar of Plagues, Pig Destroyer, Ne Obliviscaris, Khonsu, the Fall of Every Season, The Ocean, In Vain… Seamlessly, these bands combine elements in ways not done before, but they go beyond incorporating aspects from other genres or cultures in metal; they push metal into a whole new direction. The way I see it, metal evolves, such as it did in the 80s with it’s rising popularity, in the 90s with the rise of death and black metal, the 00s with the increasing popularity of metalcore and melodic death metal… The way I see it, metal is progressively on its way to become more varied in terms of style, caring less and less about a ‘dark’ image and more and more about the end-result: the music. Bands no longer shun from clean singing, and are no longer instantly labelled ‘sellout’ if they do. And the end-product of this clean singing is not cheesy or ‘soft’, which it definitely mostly was ten years ago. Furthermore, many subgenres seem to have albums emerging that are much more ‘progressive’ or ‘complex’ if you will than albums in the same genres ten years ago.
But besides the incredible progress our beloved genre is making, I think the ‘stability’ that metal has seemed to enjoy the last 20 years is something to be rejoiced. Bands in many genres – such as Amon Amarth, Dark Tranquillity, Immortal, Testament – have been doing pretty much the same thing for a long time, keeping their sound relatively stable over time. The very positive thing about this is that after such a long time, many of these bands still enjoy a loyal and dedicated fanbase, whom attend concerts, buy t-shirts and listen to new albums, even after sticking with a band for more than one or two decades. This makes it still very relevant for bands to produce albums that may not be the most innovative, but are still enjoyed by many who enjoy the style.
Also, metal perhaps the most active online community of all genres; there are numerous blogs such as NCS out there (though in my opinion none as good) who commit a lot of time and energy in keeping online metalheads up to date with regards to the newest developments in metal, and surprisingly many people for such an obscure genre read those blogs and get into contact with new music. Also newer initiatives such as bandcamp are a very good stimulance for new musicians to produce music.
So yeah, I guess my point is clear: I couldn’t be happier with metal such as it is today; a lot of music comes out that is challenging, innovative and ambitious. I believe more so than 10 or 20 years ago. I look forward to what metal will bring us in this and the next decade, but I’m 100 % sure it’ll stay as alive as its ever been. Mainly because its just the best fucking genre out there.
Thanks for the kind words!
Regarding the “Utmu has an opinion in this paper but not really” thing, the paper was required to be a research paper, but I wanted to write an argumentative paper. In the end it’s more like an argumentative paper masquerading as a research paper, and that’s probably why it reads the way it does. As for the
As for those points you listed, looking back, I feel those are self-explanatory. I tried to take the reader on an “adventure” from what postmodernism is to how it manifests itself in metal, and then I made tried to make everything culminate in the “Stagnation? Death?” section, which is the real point of the paper. I guess I thought that the read would build knowledge as they went and eventually they’d understand what I was getting at. Or something.
As for my personal opinion, I think metal is stagnating (and now that I think about it, it’s pointless to say “stagnating or dead” because they’re basically the same thing in my mind). To paraphrase Helm, metal’s dead and we’re just playing with the corpse. I think that most bands that play music in the genre are retro bands like Municipal Waste or Morbus Chron, or they either blatantly mix and match genres or do so without knowing it. I haven’t listened to many of the bands you listed–maybe three or four. But I don’t think the ones I’ve listened to are innovative, except perhaps Gojira. I don’t really know what to think about Gojira. The Ocean may be innovative in a different way, in that they are pushing for this holistic approach of audio-visual concerts with no gaps between songs, but as for their music, they aren’t all that innovative in my eyes. And I say that as an Ocean fan.
I think metal can be innovative again, but it will either take an extremely willful and/or creative group/person to make it so, or it will take a big shift in the political climate (say from capitalism to socialism)–perhaps national or international.
It should be said that even though I think it’s stagnating that I still listen to bands that blatantly mix and match genres without building on them, etc. I still love metal and I can’t see myself not loving it, and I plan on remaining with it through thick and thin.
Thanks for the lengthy response!
And I certainly see where you’re coming from, it’s just that I don’t really feel the same way; but that’s completely okay to me 🙂 And of course, there are numerous retro bands out there, and I’d even go as far to say that they’re the majority, but every new generation new musicians stand up and take what they liked from the previous generation of metal and brew something new. Take for example Gojira; they combine a little industrial, groove and death metal, but the combination of those influences result into something that doesn’t really resemble any of those genres: to me, they’re introducing something new and fresh, and will be a major influence for bands to come, just like Slayer was a major influence for many bands today.
I think at the time, back half-way though the 90s, people didn’t feel like metal was evolving all that much as well. I mean, Dark Tranquillity and At the Gates were around with their first albums, but at the time I’m sure no one around considered them to be the beginning of a whole new genre. Only after they stuck around long enough to be an inspiration for other bands’ their music it was recognized that melodic death metal – or the Göthenborg sound if you will – was a thing.
And I’m sure such a process is happening at the moment as well, perhaps with some of the bands I listed.
However, maybe it’s just that I don’t WANT metal to be considered ‘dead’, since the word itself has such a negative vibe to it. Of course I want my favorite genre to be alive and kicking, so I’m aware of the fact that I’m not as objective about this subject as someone who is writing a research paper about it (so that’d be you). I guess only time will tell!
Anyway, thanks again for the response, and I hope you’ll get an outstanding grade!
Yeah, Gojira is hard to place! The only band I ever have heard referenced in terms of Gojira’s sound would be Morbid Angel, and I kinda’ hear it, but if MA is a big influence on the French group, then they really took that influence and made it their own.
I see what you’re saying about hindsight, and you’re probably right, in 10 or so years bands like Gojira are going to be influencing a lot of groups.
I sympathize with you about the whole dead metal thing. I think I felt that way when I started reading Helm’s blog. But I’m content with it. Just because I see metal as dead doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop listening to it or endorse that other people stop listening to it. I do feel that there’s a sort of disingenuous undercurrent to bands like Municipal Waste that take thrash metal and warp it into a different context devoid of the original character that thrash had in the 80s, but that doesn’t mean I won’t like them or listen to them. They do what they want and enjoy it, and so do we.
It’s no problem! Glad to discuss this with you. This paper is actually from last semester (ended August 2nd), I got a 97 on it.
Thanks for the kind words and the conversation!
You’re most welcome. And 97 is awesome, congratulations!
Are there examples of musical genres that have actually “died”? Is “dying” synonymous with “losing popularity”?
It seems to me like folk music is the only place where something like musical “death” really happens; if a whole population (say, Native Americans) is disenfranchised or exterminated, their music goes too and has effectively “died” along with them. But as long as there are bands and entire labels devoted to metal, it’s “alive” in the only sense that matters nowadays, i.e. it’s making someone somewhere some money.
An attempt to label metal “dead” in any other sense would seem to be a question of taste rather than fact.
I can’t think of any genres that have “died”. I want to say classical, but I don’t even know about that. My version of death has to do with a lack of innovation–popularity has no direct correlation with a genre dying, in my eyes. It only affects death or stagnation insofar that popular bands may not bring anything innovative to the table (for example, the vast majority of deathcore).
This topic is based largely on opinion. Because the definition of “innovation”, and I assume “death” varies so widely with people, this is largely relative, and people can only be “more right” than one another, and I’m not sure about that. I think it’s possible that some things can be objective in art, but certainly not all things.
Sorry, but Deafheaven is just a bunch of hipsters who couldn’t get off the ground playing emo, so they switched to a parody of black metal to be ironic. I’m sure nobody is more surprised than them that the masses are taking the joke seriously.
I agree. Roads to Judah is a great album.
Im not sure I necessarily agree with the definition of stagnation thats being laid down in this paper. If Im understanding things correctly, for something to be considered innovative it needs to become more than the sum of its parts (i.e…Atheist isnt innovative because what theyre doing is still essentially Metal + Jazz). So, in order for metal to be truly innovative it has to change so much it could no longer be classified as metal. Following that line of thought…Metal (and all other genres of music) are essentially stagnant upon creation because any true innovation would automatically make it a completely new and unheard of genre. This seems like an unusually strict definition that discounts pretty much everyone in metal since Black Sabbath laid down their first riffs.
As for the death of metal…you may want to further clarify what you mean by death. As far as Im concerned metal wont ever die because the people who invest the time into playing it are clearly doing it for the joy of the music. No one plays metal because they want to get rich or because they want to get girls…they do it because theyre passionate about the music. Just like everything else, its popularity may wax and wane throughout the years but there is very little possibility of metal ever truly dying
Well, you just saved me some time, because I agree with everything you just said. And in the sense that I think most people have of the word “innovative” I think many bands are indeed continuing to innovate, maybe not in the sense of creating something so different that it breaks all molds, but that’s a rarity in any art-form. I think music evolves incrementally, but is still ever-changing.
My interpretation of Strinati’s definition of innovation–in my eyes–allows for bands such as Death, Mayhem, and other genre definers of the core genres (except perhaps thrash metal, I need to know more about punk in order to understand thrash’s categorization as modern or postmodern) to be innovative. So Death was heavily influenced by thrash and probably prog. They still built on those influences, we got an entirely new genre, that, while rooted firmly in thrash, had a sound of its own. The same goes for black metal, doom metal, etc.
As for my definition of “death” in this instance, it means that metal has stopped innovating. I make it unclear as to whether or not it’s dead or stagnating though, I *feel* as if it’s dead, but I *think* it’s stagnating. It has nothing to do with popularity (although popularity may weigh in on the innovation of the genre) or money. People may have fun playing and listening to a dead or stagnating genre–and that’s okay, after all, here I am!–but the fact that they listen to it and play it, and have immense passion for it doesn’t directly answer whether it’s dead or not. To me anyway.
As for another definition of an “end” (rather than death), I *may* subscribe to the idea that metal has reached an end (or will reach one) in that there are no/will be no clear movements that move the genre forward. This idea isn’t my own; you should look to Arthur Danto (and/or Georg Hegel) for this idea. Arthur Danto wrote a book called “The End of Art” talking about how art will/has come to an “end” at the point when it stops/stopped progressing in clearly defined movements (Medieval art to Renaissance art, etc.). I’m not sure just how clearly Hegel influenced this or even if Danto’s idea was wholly original, but I know they both have something to do with this idea. If you have some free time, this is a good listen: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/03/04/episode-16-danto-on-art/. Be prepared for a lot of talk about Duchamp and Warhol.
Sorry, the name up there should read “Utmu”, haha! Not “mu”!
Except that at its earliest stages you’d have a very hard time separating death metal from thrash (2nd wave black metal was a bit more distinct, but can still be easily tracked back through it thrash/speed metal roots) . According to Strinati’s definition, Death wouldnt even be all that innovative as the early albums were extremely thrashy…while the later albums just added a more progressive/technical aspect to the same mix. Its only hindsight that allows us to track the progression as the evolution was slight and happened over the course of years.
Now, if as you say, Strinati’s definition leaves room open for bands like Death, I dont see how can you argue that metal has become a stagnant art form. As Islander said, its extremely rare for art to make severe, distinct leaps in innovation. So, while something like Panopticon’s “Kentucky” may still be essentially a black metal album, it could very easily be the first baby steps towards a completely new sub-genre of metal. Theres really no way to know until time passes and we can look back on things
Just because death metal was similar to thrash early on doesn’t mean that it didn’t eventually evolve to be something that is more than the sum of its parts. I realize that the question of whether something is more than the sum of its parts is difficult to answer in a rational way–at least for me, a non-musician who doesn’t know much about the mechanics of music itself–in my experience it comes down to an informed intuition. I realize that that’s not the most reliable thing out there, and that logic and rationality could help bolster my argument, but at the moment it’s all I have. 😛
Sure, “Kentucky” could influence another subgenre of metal, personally I don’t feel that’s likely, but it’s always possible. And I don’t entirely discount the idea that mashing genres together is something that’s innovative, but I think it makes a lot of sense that this is not the case. In my opinion, the genre mashers are doing something new when it comes to the execution of said genre mashing, but in the end, I think that the amount of old outweighs the new. We’ve all heard bluegrass and we’ve all heard black metal, all that’s left is to put them together.
If you were to compare Death’s “The Sound of Perseverance” with the albums that influenced it, I think that the difference would be easier to see than if you compared Kentucky’s influences with it. I’m not an “expert” on metal, but I think that “Sound” is far more groundbreaking than “Kentucky”.
Very good points though, I’m not sure if I answered them fully, when I read your response this morning I had a better idea of what you meant, but right now it’s not clicking. I guess doing algebra for several hours in a math lab will do that to you. 😉
Thanks for the comments, though!
i agree with everything you’re saying, but i will argue one extremely trivial point; when i was 14 i totally thought being in a metal band would get me girls. and it did. and i was even the bass player.
when i tried my hand as lead vocalist at 19 i got even more. luckily by that point i had gone so hardcore music nerd that the “band as a dating service” was a distant 4th place behind songwriting, gear and learning the ins and outs of recording.
but yeah, girls can be just as much of a motivating factor in metal as in any other genre. same with fame and wealth.
what really matters is this; after you’ve had your fun with the girls and realized the fame and riches aren’t coming, will you still want to play metal?
me personally, 30 years later, i’m not rich or famous and i settled down with one really awesome girl, but i love playing metal now more than ever.
Got big smiles reading this comment. I, unfortunately, never found a good dating service mechanism when I was a teenager. The only things I was any good at had as much sex appeal as a bag of toads. But it evened out over time, and in the end — I got my awesome girl too.
So, what were these bags of toads you were good at?
Classwork and debate team and getting elected senior class president. I was also good at smoking weed, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes, but none of that seemed to improve my sex appeal. I was still a bookworm.
i blew off school for band practice and now i’m an entry level clerk with a supervisor half my age. being a bookworm and doing good in school is nothing to be ashamed of, i’m envious!
I wasn’t ashamed. I just yearned to be lusted after. In high school, that seemed way more important than doing well in classes. 🙂
“ashamed” was a poor choice of words, but yeah i know exactly what you mean 🙂
“elected senior class president.”
That’s difficult for me to believe for some reason.
Let’s just say that I have spread my wings a bit since high school. Another way to put it would be “went batshit crazy at some point”.
Man, I forgot about how undergrad papers read.
I literally do not have time to read this whole thing, at least at the moment, but there is something that jumps out at me. You have a lot of interesting thoughts in here, but this is not very well structured. You need a much stronger structure with clear signposts if you wish for anyone to really get a lot out of it. The lack of structure is exacerbated by too much extraneous detail (e.g., the paper doesn’t really need a full explanation of Sigh’s, Panopticon’s, and Deafheaven’s most recent albums; the point either didn’t need illustrated or could have been illustrated with one example). Also, definitions. Maybe the audience is already expected to know what a meta-narrative or a grand narrative are, in the same way that you may not have to define hearsay in a legal article, but I’m pretty damn fuzzy on the topic. That’s best left to your judgment, but I couldn’t find your definition of metal (in my brief perusal) to decide whether there was any good reason to leave that to later in the paper.
I don’t think my brain is getting sluggish with age or anything either . . . at least I hope not. I did read a lengthy, technical article on sound encoding and reproduction recently and got a lot out of it, even though I have no expertise there either. This is humanities. I think I have a better handle on things there, and a working knowledge of some aspects of postmodernism. This was just unreadable for me, though.
OK, I’m really not trying to pick on you, but I just randomly picked a sentence where you lost me. This illustrates another point:
“Helm (personal communication, 2013) explains that perhaps people simply “expect [metal] to be alive” and continues to say that if our definition of whether metal is dead or not rests on whether it has “a message and agency” and continues “…then yes, Heavy Metal is dead” (response 24).”
Diagram that for me. It doesn’t work. Helm explains X and continues to say that if Y, and continues then Z. The “and continues” part breaks the sentence so it no longer makes sense. In addition, a former colleague of mine once chided me, saying “that” should always be an object you can point to. That’s a tough rule to adhere to, but I try, and I think it improves my prose. (Not “I think THAT it improves my prose.”)
Again, I want to emphasize, I think there are interesting thoughts in here. I recognize you’re writing what may be your first scholarly article, a new and difficult style. I hope this helps.
Oh yeah, a quick word on the subject of the article: I wonder if it’s all just semantics. Also, if you insist on excluding those who mix genres as innovators of the genre itself, then you still can’t ignore bands like Portal and Ulcerate. They are undoubtedly innovating within the genre.
Some of it is semantics. I asked what you all thought innovation meant in the last entry of Reflections in the Void, and there were various definitions. Regarding this topic, I think we can only be “more right” than one another, if even that.
As for Portal and Ulcerate, I don’t really have much of an opinion, as I find Portal to be boring (although I find bands like Mitochondrion and AEvangelist to be entertaining) and I don’t enjoy Ulcerate’s sound, so I haven’t listened to much of either band.
Mitochondrion illustrates the point, if not quite as well. I’m not sure about AEvangelist . . . I didn’t care for what I heard, much.
I will concede there hasn’t really been a significant new metal subgenre since black metal, but black metal as it is today would be hardly recognizable from a 1994 perspective. Everyone’s always borrowing and mixing and matching, though, and nothing REALLY new has happened in music since industrial, or maybe rap, and before that, Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique in the 30’s. So, what’s enough innovation?
That’s a good question, and I can’t really give you a definitive answer. Mainly because I base a lot of my assumptions about a band’s level of innovation on my intuition. This is because I’m not a musician and I don’t really know much about the mechanics of music (at the moment). There is a rationale, though. Some subgenres are blatant mash-ups (deathcore, metalcore, post-black metal, maybe nu metal). As we all know, those genres really came into being around the time of the 90s (well, post-black metal may be a bit more obscure for people to believe, as it’s mostly associated with bands like Liturgy, deafheaven, and Krallice, but if you listen to some Mayhem in the late 90s, they also mixed and matched) which is when I believe the postmodern era came to affect metal.
I do need to work out some kinks and gain a better understanding of music, and I may or may not add and modify this paper so it holds up better argument-wise. Or who know, I could drop the entire idea and change my opinion as I learn! 😀
I think you have to give a Portal album a few full rounds before you start hearing what they are doing, and then you can make a decision as to whether it appeals to you. When I first heard them it seemed too messy, bizarre and I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but I had a hint that I might like it if I spent a little more time with the music. That turned out to be right. Vexovoid will be on my top 10 this year. Mitochondrion is similar, but I think they are easier to like right away.
Yeah, there was a lot going on when I first heard them. I couldn’t really find a riff to latch onto–it was like metal was hidden behind white noise. I’ll have to give them more listens.
No, it’s not my first scholarly article. It came out pretty much exactly how I wanted it, and frankly I wouldn’t change anything about the style. I wasn’t writing for the everyman, I was writing for my teacher, who didn’t find much fault with it. I’m sorry that it comes off as dense and difficult to read, but I enjoy that style and really, what I write isn’t meant for normal people, and again, it’s meant for my teacher, and perhaps philosophers (that’s the field I want to go into). I understand that that’s a “Meh.” reason, but again, I enjoy that style–although it proves difficult for many people, including myself, it’s fun to write in this way. I wouldn’t ask Nietzsche to stop writing in aphorisms because I find it difficult to read. 😀
I see what you’re saying about that quote though, I probably would change that paragraph up some. If I remember correctly, what Helm was saying was basically if metal needs a narrative of some sort to be alive, then metal isn’t alive because it currently lacks a narrative. I could be wrong though–I don’t have the interview on this computer, and admittedly, that paragraph is quite confusing because there’s a disconnect that I probably didn’t explain well enough and simply thought it rather than wrote it.
Thank you for the compliments on the ideas, although most of them aren’t mine, most of them are Helm’s or other thinkers’. The only idea that I *think* I can call my own is the Death of the Readers response to Barthes’ Death of the Author idea.
Just a quick thing… that comment was incredibly condescending.
You and your teacher are also ‘normal people’.
You put this out there to be read and commented on. Please don’t fall back on the old “it’s not for you/you just don’t get it” excuse in response to criticism.
Good point, Andy.
I apologize, FMA! I guess your comment hit me the wrong way and I reacted negatively. Sorry!
No, I absolutely understand why my criticisms would upset you. You don’t need to apologize for that. If your teacher got it, that’s what matters, I suppose. But I wasn’t critiquing the style. The “voice” of the article is exactly what I’d expect, i.e., dry, dense, matter-of-fact. It’s really just the structure, and that you occasionally lose your way–when writing very long sentences (I sometimes do the same thing, and it usually occurs when I’m editing the sentence before it’s finished) or when, in your enthusiasm for metal, you talk too much about extraneous details.
Basic, 6th-grade structure–i.e., tell the reader where you’re going, go there, and tell the reader where you’ve been–applies at all levels of writing. You can’t throw it out the window for any reason. They’d probably teach it to you again in grad school. You can get more complicated, and put in more levels of it so that there are several sub-introductions and sub-conclusions, but it still needs to be there. You have some elements of that, but not enough.
Even though I disagree with the bases for Andy’s displeasure, he’s right about me being an ass. Looking back, you seem to be giving me constructive criticism rather than malicious criticism, and the snarkiness of my response was uncalled for. You’re taking my apology whether you want to or not! 😉
Thanks for the patience with me, though, and thanks for the tips!
great paper, very well written. i don’t agree with the idea that metal is stagnant, but other posts here have argued that point far better than i could.
If I were to provide a little critique, the comment from Strinati, when you interpret it literally, devalues metal as a distinct genre at all, as it is still very indicative of its rock roots, and broadly hasn’t done much to distance itself from it in the scope of the whole music-sphere. That would basically render the entire essay obsolete, to put it more bluntly than I really want to. Electronic music, which was incepted more closely around the time that the Soviet Union collapsed (and thus, by your definitions, when the postmodern meta-narrative began), would then be the true genre to study for this phenomenon, as it strikes me as the last genre until the present day that has so little sonic, timbral relations to its influences.
As for my feelings: Depending on how one defines innovation, the subgenre either was never alive or is more alive today than it has ever been. The former rings true if you use Strinati’s definition of innovation, as what we define as progression within metal is in a sense a microcosm to the macrocosm of metal as a form of progression within rock. If the working definition of innovation includes cross-genre and cross-subgenre pollination, then there is more of that occuring in metal today than there ever has been, as there seems to be a mash-up of metal with any genre or subgenre of music imaginable.
On a side note, I have an essay I wrote that I am going to use for one of my college application supplement essays that I would love to post once it’s legal to do so (I don’t when that is, but my guess is not until I have payed the down payment to go to a particular college). It studies metal in a much more positive light (at least in my eyes, though it is a bit pedestrian in its explanations of metal, considering that my audience is the admissions team of the college), and answers from what is probably the most off-the-wall prompt I’ve seen in my short life so far.
I forgot to say in the first comment: good job overall on the paper; it was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
I tend to disagree with the idea that metal is part of the rock spectrum. Mainly because blues and jazz (and to some extent, classical) has a large influence on metal. I tend to think of metal as its own genre. Whether or not this really refutes the idea that Strinati’s definition kills metal, I don’t know. I’m tired, hehe!
Go for it! I’d be interested in reading your essay. Maybe you could submit it to Metal Music Studies? It’s something to think about. 🙂
Thanks for the compliments by the way!
I would argue that blues and jazz have just as big influences on rock, and therefore metal. I will give you the classical influences, as nothing pops into my brain about rock that is as blatantly classically-influenced as a lot of metal is.
I really want to post it, but I haven’t submitted it for the actual application yet… I don’t know, I just don’t want to get myself in an unexpected admissions pothole.
I’m not really sure, then. A large part of me wants metal to be a genre distinct from rock.
Play it safe! Submit it when you and your school are comfortable with it.
Hey, interesting paper. Though in a way it is a little too theoretical and narrow.
Coming from a cultural studies (as in Birmingham, Stuart Hall etc) background my biggest criticism would be that your terms are not always clear. What do you mean, exactly, by “innovation”? Are you connecting the concept with capitalist modes of technological innovation where “newness” or “novelty” = “a new product to sell”? Or is your definition still located within a linear, single lane progress/evolutionary sense?
Personally, I tend to see innovation is much more lateral and complex and in that way, the creation of new genres does not equate with innovation. And you see, this brings me back to the problem of you not having adequately defined your terms. After all in a musicological sense we can pin innovation to many different factors – performance modes, interpretation, melodic/harmonic/rhythmic deviations from genre based norms. There are also many other ways we could describe/locate innovation as well (such as emerging metal scenes in cultures where metal performance was/remains virtually impossible, also accounting for the complex cross genre pollinations that are occurring at unthinkably fast rates due to product/idea assimilation by the audience via digital media). You need to make your position clear(er).
Also, attempting to separate metal from jazz and the blues is impossible. As much as some (racist, dull) metal heads would like to break with this connection, if not for the collision of complex African polyrhythms and complex European harmony, there would be no metal. The pioneers of jazz and blues were cognitive heroes, revolutionaries: they dared to stray from harmonic and melodic norms, they localised modes of melodic expression and tied them to traditional, evolving, hybrid and highly original rhythmic expressions.
Metal, born of this tradition, at it’s does the same thing. I am constantly finding metal, old and new which creates and combines musical expressions, concepts and which I personally would consider “innovative”. Perhaps metal heads become desensitised and fail to realise just how out there and different their favourite genre strays from mediocrity. Which is not to say that it always does, mind you. If you’re interested in chasing this down further, check out my articles on Jazz, metal etc on my blog. Haven’t updated in a while and there’s a back log of stuff to put up there but it’s a good start.
I like what you’re doing and I’d be happy to collaborate with you should you wish to take this line of study further.
Finally, If you are interested in breaking away from the pretty, yet limited chains of postmodern work, I suggest studying Deleuze, especially “1,000 Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”. His work is kind of the Portal of the field in that it is impenetrable, dense and very eccentric, but repeat readings reveal a simultaneous simplicity/complexity seldom found elsewhere.
One really has little to add to what others said.
One thinks innovation can be heard in metal, even if the changes are small or unrefined. eg: Panopticon play something similar to Mayhem‘s or Ulver‘s early music. So, you can still call it Black Metal. Yet, it is not the same style. Not very innovative? Sure. But, innovative nonetheless, One thinks.
I wouldn’t say that the bands that mix and match genres are innovative, but the execution of that is “new”, or at least we think it’s new because we’ve never heard those sounds together before. I don’t know. I’m tired, man.
By the way, I think I read your posts in the voice of a Khajiit.
It’s meant to read more like speech by the titular character in “Bicentennial Man”.
I’ve never seen that, actually.