Dec 132013

(Here’s another guest post from Dane Prokofiev, who writes everywhere and has his own blog at Zetalambmary. It’s a year-end list of a different kind.  As always, Comments are encouraged — maybe you’d like to add to this list?)

People who listen to and enjoy extreme metal have met these people before – be it in the form of perplexed roommates at university dorms or the curious and inquisitive stranger on the train who happens to see you listening to Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation on your iPhone and feels compelled to ask you about your strange taste in music. Listed below are five things people who are not into extreme metal often say about a form of underground music that never ceases to confound their expectations of what can be considered good.

1. “Why do the vocalists scream? It’s so pointless – you can’t even make out the lyrics like that!”

I find myself repeating variations of this line ad nauseam to laymen who like to be able to figure out what the lyrics are just by hearing music: “You’re not meant to make out the lyrics; the voice here is just treated as another musical instrument.” Just as certain Classical music composers made certain orchestral sections play dissonant chords on purpose at certain parts of a piece of music (or even throughout) to create an aggressive feel or disturbing mood, harsh vocals often serve this purpose as well in extreme metal.

If you desperately need to know the lyrics of a song whenever you listen to an extreme metal song, go search for it online and memorize it. Then, whenever you listen to that song again, you’ll be surprised to notice that you can suddenly make out what the harsh vocalists are actually ‘saying’. I tried this with Abominable Putridity once and was slightly amused by how prior knowledge of the lyrics enabled my brain to ‘hear’ the words that had served as mediums for the inhumane death growls, gurgles, screams, and squeals to materialize.

There are, however, some harsh vocalists who are able to pronounce their words quite clearly even when they are ravaging their vocal chords by producing sounds that would literally scare the shit out of babies. (The lyrics still aren’t as easy to make out as in popular music, but it’s the closest thing you lyric-loving people have to audible lyrics in this underground music form.)

So to all the laymen out there, meet Mikael Stanne of Dark Tranquillity:





2. “It’s too fast/complex for me to digest and enjoy.”

Short of letting time and probability work their magic, there’s not much extreme metal appreciators can do to change the minds of laymen who think this way. It’s like trying to convince someone who simply doesn’t like harsh vocals to listen to any piece of music with harsh vocals in it. This is a critique that extreme metal appreciators find to be absurd, because often, it is the very speed and complexity of the music that makes it enjoyable in the first place! Extreme metal is an acquired taste and—I think it’s safe to say—much more so than traditional heavy metal is. So if a layman already finds traditional heavy metal to be indigestible because of certain reasons, it’s futile to ask them to try out the unpredictable beast that is extreme metal.

Of course, extreme metal bands who only focus on making their music as fast and complex as possible will compromise on their music’s potential to have a solid structure that organizes all the various musical elements into a sensible whole.

But there are some stellar examples of bands who manage to achieve breakneck speed, labyrinthine complexity, and a solid structure in their compositions. For example:





3. “How can you listen to that kind of music while sitting/standing still?”

Some laymen think that moshing and other acts of pseudo-violence during concerts only exist to be performed to the rhythm of aggressive music like extreme metal. I don’t know why, but they seem to think that it’s strange to be able to sit or stand still while listening to the music of bands such as Suffocation or The Black Dahlia Murder. I do it all the time on the train; I stand pretty still and have this rather blank look on my face. So I wouldn’t be surprised if other commuters think that I’m listening to the latest pop sensation.

I also understand that people who work out in gyms regularly use fast and hard music like extreme metal to aid in their exercises. I have a friend who regularly hits the gym and who isn’t a fan of metal music in general, but he listens to some extreme metal songs I’ve introduced him to in the gym because he says it helps provide a certain drive in his workout.

But no, extreme metal is not primarily moshing/exercising music. Like pop and rock music appreciators, extreme metal appreciators can and do listen to extreme metal while sitting or standing still – some superhuman variants of us can even use it as sleep music.

It might still continue to surprise many laymen out there, but there are actually people who can listen to this and look and behave as though they’re listening to classy jazz music:





4. “That sound gives me a headache.”

Whenever laymen say this, they are often referring to the heavily distorted and down-tuned sound of electric guitars, as commonly utilized by bands like Suffocation and Meshuggah to achieve the brutal-est and most intimidating of guitar sounds. This is another critique that tells you if someone can or cannot be ‘converted’ into an extreme metal appreciator. I mean, extreme metal is just one of those things in life that you either grow to like or detest at first listen. It really can’t be forced. If you find that you can never grow to like the sound of an electric guitar, even if it hasn’t been heavily distorted, perhaps you should be avoiding much of contemporary Western music in the first place. Seriously, I’ve met some people whose problem with metal music in general is the very sound of the electric guitar.

But to make laymen feel better, there is a sub-genre of extreme metal that could give even the most seasoned extreme metallers a headache: drone doom. Played at a loud enough volume, Sunn O)))’s brain-hemorrhaging music could be turned into an instrument of sonic warfare.




5. “Isn’t that death metal?”

Granted, the laymen who say this can’t really be faulted, because they’re not even interested in extreme metal in the first place. But I find it annoying that they have this tendency to lump every other sub-genre of extreme metal together with death metal just because said sub-genres have a heavy sound and harsh vocals, too.

I would really like to find out who was responsible for spreading around such a faulty stereotype of extreme metal in the first place. Whoever did so probably had an ulterior motive of intensifying the stigma of listening to metal by attempting to establish a hard-and-fast rule that all extreme metal is about death, which is, y’know, a negative thing, and exploring negative things in music is bad because people don’t want to hear about bad stuff; they only want to hear about all that is good, fluffy, cuddly, and warm in the world.

Just to set the record straight: not ALL forms of extreme metal have lyrics dealing with death, cartoonish and gory cover artwork, and vocalists who utilize deep, guttural growls. Just because an extreme metal band like Beneath the Sky has a vocalist who utilizes death growls doesn’t mean the band is a death metal band (their lyrics deal with common metalcore themes like love, betrayal, and hatred). Sub-genre names aren’t just describing the sound of the music for which they function as a label – they are much more than that. Each one of them is a composite of numerous aspects, such as sonic characteristics, lyrical themes, cover art subject matter, cover artwork style, audio production quality, sociopolitical circumstances surrounding the sub-genre when it was created, etc.

Oh yeah, this is totally death metal because it has a heavy sound and death growls in it:



  1. “there are actually people who can listen to this and look and behave as though they’re listening to classy jazz music”

    This is me. ALL. THE. TIME. People look at me wide-eyed when they see me listening to DEP or Dying Fetus as if I was listening to Coltrane or something.

    Also, in my experience, all extreme metal has been considered “screamo” instead, which to me hurts even more the the generalization “death metal”. Eventually, when I tell them that it’s not screamo, but [insert genre hear], THEN they go on to call it “death metal”.

  2. Wait, so am I superhuman because I use death metal as sleeping music? Yay!

  3. The other response I get all the time is, “Isn’t it satanic?” or some variation of that, or something along the lines of sick music for sick people.

    • Oh yes, that thing about Satanism. It just never goes away, doesn’t it?

      • Try being a Metalhead, working in an engineering company with mainly people 30-50, in Bergen!
        (home of Taake, Burzum, Gorgoroth,Immortal, The former Fantoft stave church, and media friendly characters like gaahl and varg)

        I wear rather simple and discrete band shirts to work every once in a while. Now im sure they have all filed me away as a church burning child molester who sacrifices homosexuals to Satan.

        • Long hair and a soon to be long beard also helps them nicely put me in a stall 🙂

        • I still wear band t-shirts every day to school, but I swear no one every says anything – EXCEPT for the occasional time when I wear my Dying Fetus t-shirt. For some reason that particular band and shirt always strikes a nerve. I’ve even tested this by wearing My Cattle Decapitation, Decapitated, and any number of depraved band name t-shirts on days surrounding the Dying Fetus shirt, but it’s ONLY that one that evokes a response.

  4. I often rocked my first born to sleep to the sounds of Burzum’s “Filosofem”. Worked like a charm.

    Kid’s a badass.

  5. While it’s already mentioned in the post, my personal pet peeve is when the grunge fans tell me that they don’t like it because they can’t understand the lyrics.

    • Also when grunge fans complain about the harsh vocals. Cobain wasn’t a model singer anyway; he honestly came rather close to the harsh vocal style displayed by some more hardcore-influenced bands (i.e. Every Time I Die, Gaza).

  6. My pet peeve is when people who listen to clown music about zombies and murdering dragons and dying a thousand deaths somehow think they are intellectually or morally superior to “laymen” who like songs that are about and facilitate the act of fucking.

    • +1, my friend, +1. The wielding of a sense of intellectual superiority is especially annoying when it is done by the undeserving. (That is the very definition of “pretentious.”) Even if they were listening to something smart, the criticism would be misplaced. Metal has too many variants to be completely lumped into the “this is for dumb people” category, and, besides that, even the most brilliant people like some kinds of dumb entertainment. You show me someone who only digests high-brow culture, and I’ll show you a complete, pretentious tool.

      The headache thing is something I’ve heard before, but it’s demonstrably false. There is no way a particular type of sound can give someone a headache. It’s all about volume and sustained volume. The enemy is modern production, which keeps it loud all the time (as opposed to good, dynamic production). That’s why this one pisses me off. It’s a lie, or they’re too stupid to tell the difference between psychological pain and real pain. Or too stupid to know how to use the volume buttons.

      On the lyrics–I prefer them to be in a language I don’t understand.

      • And now I see that I misread your statement. It goes both ways, though.

        There may be some kind of deserved superiority in not digesting solely what large corporations feed you, but it’s not an intellectual one. Conversely–and this is what I said before–if you only like things that are out of the mainstream, then you’re an asshole.

    • Personally, I only listen to songs about fucking zombies and dragons, so I am a god among mortals.

    • I think most people understand that smart people can like dumb things. The frustration comes because the lack of enthusiasm for different sounds seems bizarre for those who consider themselves either appropriators or more serious students of music. They want to share a common enthusiasm with others because that’s what people do.

  7. The interesting thing about point 1 is that anybody who says that is also implicitly dismissing instrumental music and any music with vocals sung in a language they don’t speak or understand. That’s a whole lot of music to ignore.

    • Is it weird that I prefer vocals in a language I can’t understand, but I dismiss all instru-metal?

      (Please note, the dismissing of all instru-metal is after giving many, many things an honest try. And I do quite like instrumental classical music.)

      • Not really. I think, in a way, we’re hard-wired to react to vocals in music. After all, our voice is pretty much the very first musical instrument we ever use, short of banging a couple of rocks together. All instruments are just created to extend, amplify, or enrich our singing voices. (Or in my case, replace. I had a multi-octave alto of the angels until puberty, at which point my vocal range shrunk to a minor third, at best.) I think where a lot of instrumental metal falls down is that lack of a singing, melodic line, even if it’s done by instrument instead of a voice. That’s something that orchestral composers have a stronger handle on.*

        *This is a drastic over-generalization and should in no way imply classical music is inherently better than other kinds of music. I happen to play and enjoy both.

  8. I usually avoid mentioning to people that I listen to metal, unless they specifically ask me. It’s not out of shame. I don’t think I could be mistaken for anything else but a metalhead given my appearance and style of dress. It’s because of my own personal pet peeve, which is when I tell people that I listen to metal and they ask “Like Metallica?” Then I’m asked to rattle off a few of my favorite bands. Trying to explain who your current favorite extreme metal bands are to people who don’t listen to that music is like suddenly speaking in tongues.

    • Ah yes, the other obligatory question to a metalhead: “What do you think about Metallica?”

    • Right lol. Every time. “Oh like Metallica?” Then it usually goes like “No heavier stuff.” Of course they keep pressing then you have to say a band, “Like Darkthrone.” Oh what is that? Then you might as well just run away because explaining black metal or any extreme metal is nearly impossible to people who don’t know about it.

      • Haha, my go-to band whenever they press me for one that I listen to that is not Metallica is “Behemoth”. You’re right that it gets awkward when you don’t want to explain further because you feel like there’s no point doing so to a bunch of people who will probably be abhorred at extreme metal culture anyway.

      • Ha haa! This. This happens all the fucking time.

        In a way it is just completely weird that all of this can happen – that you can be into something that the vast majority of people have either little understanding or even no real conception of what it actually involves. I honestly can’t think of any music genre which has been so grossly misunderstood. Most of the time when I’m talking to non-metalheads about metal, it’s like they’re talking about some completely imagined, fictional form of music that bears no relation to what I’m into.

  9. This sentence got me thinking about the gateway effect:

    “This is another critique that tells you if someone can or cannot be ‘converted’ into an extreme metal appreciator.”

    I think most people probably arrive at the kind of music that graces the pages of NCS via gateway bands, and in fact there’s probably a progression for most where once they start getting interested in heavier, more extreme or complex music, their tastes start to evolve and they find themselves spreading outward into niches of metal that just years previous they couldn’t imagine getting into….. their taste comes under the influence of some kind of natural selection, killing off the mundane musical elements and they break free of the lame verse/chorus, 4/4 time signature vanilla forms of old, incorporating ever greater diversity of song structures, drawing them out to album length musical movements arranged around heavily conceptual themes. They find themselves seeking deeper and deeper into that creative metal abyss and longing to transcend all previous musical forms, pushing beyond previous zones of musical inhabitation into environments ever more extreme and alien, desiring nothing more than to push past the physical into realms which once appeared metaphysical, and take these puny human limbs and neurons and usher them beyond all previous limits to produce a truly glorious sonic creation that people would listen to and scarcely believe that a person could be behind those instruments and that microphone…..

    ….. and all the lay people stand back and proclaim “What is this? It’s some kind of monsterous noise!.. is it… is it evil?”

    … and you say: ‘neh, fear not, this music and yours were once the same long ago… behold the glorious transmorphing potential of musical evolution!’

    ….but their fears are not assuaged, and then they shun you and forever treat you with a strange mix of trepidation and fear, draw their children closer when you pass and hold their suspicious gaze over you. And then when something bad happens, they say: “It’s them, it’s their fault! Those metal ones! I knew it all along… they’re evil! ” 😉

  10. i remember being sixteen and falling asleep while blasting Reign In Blood through my obnoxiously over-sized 80s headphones. i knew then that i had finally found true love

  11. Great article! NoCleanSinging for the win!

    Black Metal has an occult aspect to it as well. That brings in quite a new dimention to it. I am myself an atheist, but we deal with religion in our lyrics (Blodsgard). In Norway, satanism is closely tied in with black metal in the media. Explaining why you listen to satanic music to someone that like love, soft music and cute coffeshops can be difficult. First there is the music, secondly there is the lyrical universe.

    I mostly just go with “you won’t understand it, darling. And are you absolutely sure you want me to start explaining anyway?” 😉 Most people doesnt really want to understand. They just want to state that they think its bad. I personally pull the toughest card I own when it gets heated: “Well, you KNOW you are talking to a black metal musician right now, right?”. That shuts up the argument faster then a priest at a science convention.

    • Off topic: Monument is one of my favorite albums of the year!

      On topic: My response is that I also like songs about Santa Claus, who is another popular fictional character in many western cultures. Saying “Hail Satan” is about as meaningful as “Hail Santa”. If one makes you uncomfortable, you can substitute the other. Problem solved.

  12. What makes this discussion even more interesting for me is that when I’m not listening to metal or hardcore, I’m a classical musician and listener. I concertize regularly as a classical singer, and have a record collection that’s equally extensive on both sides. When I tell my metal loving friends that I’m classically trained, it’s not even an issue. The number of metal fans I’ve met who appreciate “difficult,” 20th-century composition is pretty high, certainly higher than amongst the classical crowd. (Seriously, after DEP or Deathspell Omega, anything by Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt or any of their Darmstadt ilk doesn’t sound all that odd.)

    It’s the other classical musicians who are the problem. They ask every one of the above questions, and do so in a most condescending manner. It’s as if there is no way that metal can even be considered music in the classical world. I occasionally succeed in turning someone on to just how complex metal can be (Fleshgod has a certain “wow” factor with the obvious classical references in their songs), but it’s the greatest of uphill battles. It’s certainly a frustrating place to be in as a musician with a foot in each world.

  13. Sounds like a lot of the criticisms my wife has with metal in general … she likes the guitars and all that, but can’t really stand a lot of heavy drumming (mostly heavy fills and blastbeats) or vocal growling.

  14. I have a friend who thinks extreme metal is too pretensious. Sure, some bands are laughable, or take themselves too seriously, but that shouldn’t really affect the music. Also, if you watch interviews with bands, you’ll find that most of them are just goofy, fun guys. It’s so fucking annoying how he thinks extreme metal is “beneath him” and shit.

  15. Better”pretentious”than boring predictable bland mainstream corporate junk.

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