Dec 282014


(Our guest Grant Skelton returns to NCS with a thought piece about extremity in metal.)

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelations 3:15-16, English Standard Version

The psychedelic haze of the 60’s wasn’t extreme enough for an unknown heavy blues band called Earth. So they read some occult fiction and wrote a song based on the tritone diabolus in musica, the Devil’s interval. The song was named for a horror film starring Boris Karloff — Black Sabbath — and the name became their own. After about a decade, Sabbath were no longer on the fringe. Their extremity had waned. Enter thrash metal. Booze-pounding, head banging, denim-donning guys with mullets. If Sabbath, Maiden, and Priest were too slow for you, throw on some Metallica, Megadeth, and of course Slayer. If those bands didn’t do it for you, you could dig deeper underground for Sepultura, Possessed, Pestilence, Death, Dark Angel, Celtic Frost, and so on. Don’t forget the Florida death metal scene. And the Gothenburg scene that answered right back. Then there’s Norwegian black metal that gave us the likes of Darkthrone, Emperor, Immortal, and Mayhem.

Each generation of metal musicians stands on the shoulders of those who came before. Every generation builds on what came before it, creating layer upon layer of extremity. What was considered thought-provoking ten years ago is stagnant today. And yet, there is something of a veneration for the bands of yesteryear. Old bands that broke up, or stopped recording prior to the Internet age, are seeing a resurgence in their popularity. Young, new fans are hearing older music and they want it. They want to stream it and buy it. They want T-shirts, they want tickets to shows. They want a reunion album and a tour. So they buy an older album that just got remastered and released via Bandcamp. Or they throw in on an Indiegogo, GoFundMe, or Kickstarter. They want perks and prizes. They’re not content to just hit the repeat button on YouTube. They want to be a consumer of quality music, and not just a passerby.

Why? Because it’s something they’ve never heard before. Something about it challenges their expectations. It makes them redefine what they thought metal was. It expands their musical horizons. And they love it! This is a good thing. It’s good for emerging unsigned bands whose members can’t yet grow facial hair. It’s likewise a plus for old fogies releasing a new album when they haven’t had anything fresh since 1998.

Metal fans are in love with extremity. We like music that pushes boundaries. We’re not people who are content to accept the “status quo,” the “go with the flow,” the “mainstream.” We like the road not taken, the places that aren’t on the map. We want to know what exactly is in Mordor that has everyone so frightened. There is something inherently pioneering about metal. By its nature, it wants to explore uncharted terrain and try things that haven’t been tried before. It wants to experiment, to test its listeners. To challenge who they are and how they view the world. Metal is not passive. It is active. It always seeks new influences to incorporate as it evolves. It grows and expands with each new generation of musicians. It is in a constant state of flux. Just when you think you’ve heard everything there is, along comes something new to prove you wrong.



For some fans, extremity translates into brutality. They want indecipherable guttural growls, dudes in camo shorts and combat boots with hair like Rapunzel, (AND SLAMS!!!) blast beats at 400 bpm (NO! MORE SLAMS!!!), and lyrics that are so full of medical jargon you’d need a copy of Grey’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the show) to comprehend them (did I mention SLAAAAMMS!!!). They want album art that’s protested by the Westboro Baptist Church and banned in all civilized countries. They want a song whose title alone can’t be uttered aloud in pleasant company. These are your people who watch Rob Zombie films to lull themselves to sleep at night. You know the ones. These are the metal fans that even the rest of us want to approach and say,”Hey man. Are you ok?” And their presence adds to the extremity and polarity of the culture. They have chosen their flavor. They know exactly what bands deliver their goods and which ones don’t. And metal would not be the same without bands that provide this crew what they want.



Sometimes, extremity means “epic,” i.e., a really, really, really, really, really, really….really (no, really) long song. Drone, doom and its many subgenres, black and ambient black metal offer a slew of bands that write intricate, long, dedicated pieces. I suppose this hearkens back to the psychedelic days. Lysergic trances seem to produce long songs. We can thank Iron Butterfly and their 17+ minute version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for that. Of course, Led Zeppelin did offer a 26+ minute rendition of “Dazed and Confused” on their The Song Remains The Same live album. To listen to The Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” in its entirety would take over half an hour. Sleep’s Dopesmoker album, along with its arduous history, is a latter example. An entire album composed of only 1 track. More recently, Meshuggah’s I EP consisted of a single 21-minute track. Since we’re still in the throes of Listmania, 2014 saw While Heaven Wept follow this blueprint. Their newest album Suspended At Aphelion is one track comprising multiple movements.

For metalcore, being “extreme” means two things. The first is catchier choruses. The other is… experimentation with other genres. The band may amp up their hardcore influence and introduce more breakdowns. They might institute a little death metal and have the drummer read a book on “blastbeatology.” They might even play a bit faster (or use solos) after spinning Ride The Lightning or Reign In Blood a few times in the studio. You can see this in the way that every single metalcore band promotes an album. Without fail, either in an interview or press release, the band will utter something to this effect: “The first album had heavy parts and melodic parts. With the new album, we’re making the heavy parts heavier and the melodic parts…melodic-er! We made the breakdowns even breakdownier!”



Metal’s polarity invites cooperation between different, even antithetical worldviews. What other genre of music would facilitate a band like Behemoth and a similar band like A Hill To Die Upon? These bands’ worldviews and lyrical content are polar opposites. And yet, fans of Behemoth can appreciate A Hill To Die Upon and vice versa. I once went to a show here in my hometown at which Impending Doom were on the bill. So were Dying Fetus. Impending Doom aren’t ashamed in the least about their lyrics. Neither are Dying Fetus. Both bands are extreme in their own regard, albeit in different ways. But they were sharing a stage. The same crowd that came to see Impending Doom stuck around for Dying Fetus.

I recently discovered a doom band from Poland called Evangelist. Their most recent album is unapologetically influenced by Christian doctrine. Yet they recently released a split on which they covered “Freezing Moon”, originally by Mayhem. Like Behemoth, Mayhem are vehemently anti-Christian. No other musical genre would allow this kind of interaction between two mutually exclusive worldviews. Other genres are too “safe” for something like this. Faith and religion (or opposition to it) are not a topic that most genres want to handle. An obvious exception is contemporary Christian and gospel music, genres marketed solely based on their lyrical content (but that’s another topic for another day).



You don’t usually see this kind of polarity in other genres. For example, I like quite a bit of country music. But most of it is stuff that was around before I was alive. Because there was a time when country had its own sense of extremity. Johnny Cash is probably the best example of that. Because he pushed certain boundaries, he seems to have garnered quite a bit of posthumous popularity in the metal and punk communities. He was not someone who was comfortable being in the middle. Modern country music doesn’t challenge people. It doesn’t goad them away from the safety of their pickup trucks and field bonfires. It insults the intelligence of its own consumers by exploiting their conservative loyalties and religious worldviews. It mocks them and most of them don’t even know they are being mocked. That is not music. That is extortion of the soul.

When bands push the envelope with their album art, their lyrical content, their musical prowess, their merchandising and touring regimen, the entire genre benefits. Music is art and that is what it is supposed to do. Music should be subversive and thought-provoking. Perhaps even a little disturbing. Sometimes even very disturbing. It should press us away from the center, the middle, the neutral. It should push us into something real. Something we can hold and touch and interact with. Music should make you battle with yourself and examine who you really are. It should sift you, and help you discard parts of yourself that you no longer need. The extreme gives you a reference point, a guiding rod. When you’re on the fringe, you can look back at the folks in the middle and say,”Wow. How boring. I want my life to count for something.” Metal is not lukewarm. It never has been and never will be.

In summation, I want to clarify that I’m not genre-bashing. There’s nothing wrong with listening to whatever makes you happy. Some music is just made to make you feel good, or cheer you up. There’s a time and a place for that. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music simply because you find pleasure in it. Everything doesn’t require in-depth analysis. Notwithstanding, I wanted to put this topic of extremity forward to the readers and get some perspective.

What about you? What extreme aspects of metal do you enjoy? Why?


  33 Responses to “ON EXTREMITY IN METAL”

  1. Another brilliant piece. If you want to check out some contemporary country that doesn’t suck, look into Sturgill Simpson.

    • Thanks! And I appreciate the recommendation on Sturgill Simpson. I’ll follow up here after I listen a bit. As for modern country that doesn’t suck, I love me some Jamey Johnson.

  2. I have a semi-companion piece to this half-written that I now REALLY need to get finished. Good stuff sir.


    “Music is art and that is what it is supposed to do. Music should be subversive and thought-provoking. Perhaps even a little disturbing. Sometimes even very disturbing. It should press us away from the center, the middle, the neutral. It should push us into something real. Something we can hold and touch and interact with. Music should make you battle with yourself and examine who you really are. It should sift you, and help you discard parts of yourself that you no longer need. The extreme gives you a reference point, a guiding rod. When you’re on the fringe, you can look back at the folks in the middle and say,”Wow. How boring. I want my life to count for something.” ”

    While I mainly agree with this, the very last part is the sort of thing that certain types (who shall remain unnamed) can twist around into the sort of ideoloy where “listening to metal makes me better than other people”. In any group of people there’s always going to be SOMEONE in the middle, after all.

    But I do agree that music, as an artform, can be both subversive and thought-provoking. Metal, both in terms of its sound and its history, is perfectly placed to examine the darker side of life (which should never be ignored). I just get irritated by the sort of mentality who thinks that using music to examine the darker side of life gives you carte blanche to be an asshole because it’s more “extreme”.

    • Youre all in the middle compared to me..

      ..get on my level posers!

    • We all feel a need to belong to a group and surround ourselves with something familiar. There’s probably a person with a PhD in anthropology that could articulate this better than me. I’m not trying to imply any kind of hierarchy or promote the idea that metal is some sore of elite esoteric brotherhood. That kind of clandestine mentality has littered history with all kinds of evils. You can see something silimar within the subgenres themselves sometimes.

      And you are right when you say that there’s always someone in the middle. Sometimes that’s a great place to be. And there’s nothing wrong with it in practice. Listening to metal doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else. It certainly doesn’t give one a license to judge and mistreat other people. That would only perpetuate the same kinds of behaviors that frequently inspire this music. It was just an anecdotal example that I thought would make my point.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Can’t wait to read your semi-companion piece.

  3. The thing I love most about extremity is that there is always something new to discover. Metal is always trying to push an edge or as my friend puts it, create the sound of right now, not yesteryear. That’s why things like the re-thrash bands and such tend to leave me cold. It harkens back to the past, but often fails to build toward the future. To hear something new and still understand their influences is one thing, to try write Ride the Lightening over and over again is another entirely.

    • Agreed. Sometimes the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s a difference between imitation and influence. What bands do you think are creating “the sound of right now?”

  4. I like the fact that I can pick a bunch of albums to listen to and they will mostly be some form of extreme. From the blastbeats of grindcore to the slower majesty of doom and stoner.
    There is a sound to fit my mood where ever I look.
    Whilst at work we’ve been allowed to listen to music on the stores CD player. This has mostly been Christmas music and chart music compilations. I have no problem with other peoples choice in music, but upon listening to the selection at work I came to the conclusion that it’s mostly bland and same-y. With a couple of exceptions everything seemed to sound the same as everything else (I guess this is accusation that can be leveled by someone looking in on metal and it’s sub-genres). Thankfully I managed to slip in Pink Floyds Endless River and Earths Primitive and Deadly.

    • Nice subversive infiltration there. 🙂 Like you, although I’m sure there is some strikingly good music in genres that are more popular than metal, the few chart-toppers I periodically am forced to hear sound completely interchangeable with each other, and usually coma-inducing.

    • I just recently heard “Primitive and Deadly.” I hadn’t heard Earth before and listened to it on a whim. I read that that album actually made it onto the Billboard chart. Not that that counts for everything. Some people only focus on numbers, because music is a business in addition to being an art. I like to see quality music succeed. Great album.

  5. Luckily, when I’m out in Chicago I can avoid most pop music, but when I’m back here sometimes my sister gains control over the car stereo, which gives me a lens into it for the time being. And I have to say, as Grant kind of said, I feel like I’m being pandered to when Taylor Swift or (especially newer) Maroon 5 comes on the radio, with a few lines being repeated ad nauseum, as if the songwriter thought that was the only way to make a hook. There certainly are some exceptions to this, to be sure, but most of the time it’s somewhat painful to listen to, though it affirms why I got into metal in the first place.

    • What I find weird about radio pop/top 40, is how the people who listen to our can be SO passionate about a single by an artist, and then they listen to it ten thousand times over a couple of months and then by the end of the year it’s totally forgotten. I know the nature of radio pop is to be disposable, but to learn every lyric to a song and then forget about it six weeks later is crazy to me.

    • Sounds like somebody needs to “shake it off.”

  6. The extremity is definitely one of the selling points of the metal genre. The extremes are great, and when you’re not afraid to go to the extremes it also opens up everything in the middle. Just take a band like Opeth- I’m talking up to Watershed- I can’t think of another genre that would allow a band the freedom to explore that much sonic terrain in a single album, let alone one song. Thanks to the artists that have pushed boundaries, we can count While Heaven Wept, Megadeth and Dying Fetus as part of the same genre, even though the subgenres they reside in are so different.

    • You hit the proverbial nail on the head when you mentioned “freedom.” That’s the crux of this post. A metal artist has much more freedom to explore, discover, and expand than most other genres.

  7. Nice article. I like your writing style, sir. I don’t really have much to add, other than I agree. It’s funny when you dial back to things like Number of the Beast and listen to them these days, they seem almost like pop songs. The evolution in metal has just pushed so far into the extreme that it makes me wonder how much farther down the rabbit hole goes.

    In all honesty although I’ve been into metal since forever (like you, discovering it in my early teens, some *cough* 25 odd years ago) I’ve really come to appreciate more the diversity in metal. The contrast between lighter and darker emotions and musical approaches was always there, but it seems like its just gone through a Cambrian explosion in the last decade or so. It’s almost a microcosm of all musical styles in some form or other. Like the other commenters here, what I struggle to understand is how people *don’t* like this genre and are content with radio-friendly offerings. No lukewarm for me thanks.

    Also, the first NCS post to open with scripture? well played…

    • Glad you liked the article! And thanks for noticing the quote at the top. I thought it was relevant.

      You’re right about metal’s evolution. Every now and then bands will utilize older styles in a fresh way. Some people hate it and dismiss the bands as copycats imitating a bygone era. They say bands like this are irrelevant and unoriginal. Other camps think it’s fresh and visionary. A lot of it comes down to preference. I’ll give you an example. I really like so-called “rethrash” bands like Evile and Warbringer. They have talent, they play fast, and I remember their songs because they have hooks and are well written. Do Evile sound like Metallica? Sure, but I love Metallica too so what’s wrong with that? If we wrote off bands because they sounded like other bands, we’d be in an infinite regress.

  8. Looking at this from another perspective, Metal is only as extreme as what you’re comparing it to. If you hold it to the standards of pop music…Yes. This is some pretty crazy stuff. Thematically, it’s tends to be far darker and it’s much more aggressive and/or technical musically. If you widen the comparison to include classical, jazz, and avant garde those differences aren’t quite as extreme. In this case, the main difference is in its willingness to exploit shock value. Even that is iffy. It doesn’t even have a clear advantage regarding niche appeal.
    Close the circle to include only metal itself, and it’s almost like looking in a mirror. While metal is a genre that embraces everything from classical piano to pig squeal vocals, things sure get controversial when pop elements are involved. I don’t mean catchy. I mean P-O-P. Few and far between are the artists/groups that can include pop elements. Even they tend to be held at arm’s length with a bar called “Not really metal.”
    For my money, the most extreme, subversive thing to happen to metal in the last five years is Babymetal. I’m not saying that there aren’t metal fans who are into them, but the reaction against them has tended towards exclusion and lots of pearl clutching.(Or, this being metal, skull necklace clutching.)

    • You see, when it comes to Babymetal while I have no intrinsic problem with them at all, I actually don’t think there’s ANYTHING at all subversive about them… at least, not from a Metal point of view.

      If anything, they’re subverting Pop music using the trappings of Metal – and I’m not saying that out of some misguided notion about “the purity of metal” or anything like that.

      What I mean is that it feels a LOT more like it’s coming FROM the Pop world, rather than FROM the Metal world. And I think that’s an important distinction.

      From a wider perspective – though this time centred in Metal – it’s a bit like when I see a band doing the PR rounds and talking about how they’re “thinking outside the box” or being “more than just a metal band” by incorporating Pop influences. It’s not subversive in the slightest. Essentially it boils down to bands thinking (or more likely simply claiming) that they can be more “alternative” than other bands… by incorporating things designed for mass appeal. Which makes zero logical sense.

      It’s the classic “don’t piss in my pocket, and tell me it’s raining” type of thing. I’m totally fine with bands saying “we like Pop music and melodies, we want to use them” (“Confusion Bay” by Raunchy is one of my favourite albums)… but pretending it’s some sort of artistic statement or somehow progressive just doesn’t fly with me. There’s nothing new about non-mainstream bands (whatever the genre) incorporating mainstream sounds in order to increase their appeal. Yet it happens over and over, and the same bands try and feed us the same lines about creative freedom, and being “more” than “just” a metal band, and the result is almost always the same. It’s the same sort of generic, mass-appeal melodies and structures. Slapping a big stamp labelled “Metal” on them, doesn’t disguise that.

      To paraphrase Mr Hank Hill, “Can’t you see you’re not making Metal any better, you’re just making Pop worse?”

      Whereas with Babymetal I think it’s more a case of a mainstream band/sound incorporating elements of the non-mainstream, which very much CAN be seen as a subversive act.

      Sorry about rambling there. I was trying to clarify my thoughts AS I was writing them.

      • I rewrote my post 6 or 7 times before settling on what I posted.
        All of your points…I agree, or at least know where you’re coming from. I just find it interesting that pop and metal exist in this binary relationship, in this black and white world. Mix the two together….oh, boy. I’m neutral on pop and metal mixing. I don’t like it, but I can easily ignore it. MIx rap and metal, however, and I have the same visceral reaction.
        You do kind of prove my last 2 paragraphs. You find it disingenuous and I agree, but the monster IS pop. I can’t speak for your personal taste, but would you have a similar screed(struggling to find the right word, so don’t take offense) against a band incorporating other distinctly non-metal elements? Let’s say…Russian folk music? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility for a band to cynically exploit the growing popularity of folk metal. Does it get a hand wave and a “not for me”? Or does it get a pass because it isn’t something that you potentially have to confront and be sick of on a daily basis?
        My larger point was that our claims of extremity are easy to make when the measuring stick is safe, inoffensive pop music for the masses. It’s easy to be extreme when the one you’re comparing yourself to is performing music that is safe for 10 year old girls to dance to. When you hold those claims up against ALL of music, we’re suddenly not so extreme. Now there’s shades of gray. We have our points here and there, but we have to pick them more carefully.
        I’m a semi-regular participant here and an entrenched metal fan. There’s just so much agreement here that I was hoping dropping a skewed viewpoint could provoke a different conversation and shake things up. Thanks for engaging me.

        • When you mentioned mixing rap and metal… I really enjoyed one such album (i think it was “Loud rocks” compilation) when I was in high school – some 14 – 15 years ago. I listened to rap back then and I have just started showing interest in metal. I think that album was among the ones that sparked my interest for metal – it did look extreme to me at that point in time, because I saw it as the fusion of two music genres that were not considered to be purely mainstream (and were seen as something completely opposite).

  9. i could probably name a thousand “brutal death metal” or “technical death metal” bands that i absolutely love, but at the same time i still think Six Feet Under’s “13” is a death metal masterpiece. at the end of the day it’s the song that matters, not just how many notes are crammed into a measure, how fast the blast beats are or how low the vocalist can growl. i happily welcome the next generation of even more extreme metal bands, so long as the songwriting is good.

    • Excellent point. Sometimes songwriting is sacrificed in the name of being extreme. Longer songs, more brutal songs, wankier solos, faster drumming…these are all for naught if there’s nothing in the song that makes you want to hear it again. If metal’s going to be extreme, it needs to be extreme about songwriting.

  10. EXTREMELY great fucking article. You know I sang the shit along out of More Than Words. BECAUSE EVERY BAD BOY HAS HIS SOFT SIDE:

  11. I’ve been a thrash/death metal fan for years, but decided to try out that hated subgenre known as “metalcore”. To my absolute astonishment, I am really enjoying the newest Kiilswitch Engage. And to make it worse, As I Lay Dying is floating my boat right now. “An Ocean Between Us” is one damn heavy album!

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