Photo by Tim Flach
About the title of this post: I’m using the term “we” very loosely. A lot of people who visit this site, maybe a majority of you, probably don’t like disgusting music. Heavy and harsh, even angry and savage — yes. But disgusting? Not likely. I’m just as sure that many of you do. I do. But why?
I’ve had that question in my head for a long time, but like most hard questions, I put off focusing on it. What got me thinking about it last night was Durf Talitopia’s review of Primitive Man’s new EP, Home Is Where the Hatred Is, at Brutalitopia. He wrote:
These are four songs that make you feel the need to shower after listening, and then maybe consider just drowning yourself in the bathtub…. Home is Where the Hatred Is will definitely not be for everyone. It’s uncompromising in its ugliness, relentlessly spewing spite and bitterness from every second of every song…. This is music that has little to no commercial appeal, music that most people would probably turn off halfway through the first track. In short, it’s music made by a band that believes in it…. I love that Home is Where the Hatred Is exists, and I think it’s one of the most distinct, incredible albums I’ve heard in a long, long time… even if I might not listen to it again for a long, long time.
Durf found the EP’s final song particularly disturbing: “‘A Marriage With Nothingness’ is one of the most uncomfortable songs I’ve ever encountered, to the point where I genuinely don’t know if I ever want to listen to it again.”
I hadn’t heard that song, or anything else on the EP, until reading the review. I listened to “A Marriage With Nothingness” first, and then I started writing this post.
I doubt that an attraction to disgusting music comes naturally to most people. I think what comes naturally, in the enjoyment of rock music generally and metal in particular, is a memorable melody, an electrifying riff, a tribal rhythm — something that stays with you. If you like disgusting music, I suspect it was an acquired taste, like a shot of whiskey or a drag on a smoke. No one likes it the first time, but for some people it grows on you, if you stay with it. But why?
I know people who swear by ugly music because it captures their view of the world and their perspective on the human experience: People are shit, life is pain, the future is hopeless, the past is a cankerous sore that won’t heal. Beautiful music is a lie, it isn’t real, it’s a fiction. Beauty is what fools find in life, or something that happens to those on whom fortune smiles. But if you’re no fool, if you ain’t no fortunate son (or daughter), it has no relevance.
The thing is, I don’t have that view of life. I happen to love the world and most of the days I spend in it. In my world view, some people are definitely shits, but most aren’t. I’m sure that my rose-colored view of the landscape is a product of coming out on the winning end of the cosmic dice roll most of the time. If your past is full of lucky breaks, if the dice roll your way more often than not, then you tend to expect more of the same. That’s called optimism.
So why is an optimistic, generally cheerful person who tries to find silver linings in clouds and the best in the worst people drawn to disgusting music? Why was Death Mask by Lord Mantis one of my favorite albums of last year? Why am I getting impatient for the next release by Dragged Into Sunlight? Why am I praising the new split by Vassafor and Temple Nightside in tomorrow’s review? Why do I find Primitive Man so powerful? When nihilism and misanthropy aren’t the cornerstones of your philosophy, what accounts for the appeal of disgusting music?
Justin Bartlett — artwork for Lasse Marhaug
I’ll throw out a few ideas, speaking for myself, but I’m honestly not completely sure what the explanation is, even for myself.
I think the power of music, and metal in particular, lies in its ability both to express emotion and to provoke emotional responses. When done well, it captures and conveys feelings in ways that mere words cannot, and at its most powerful it provides a release and a relief from strong emotions (which is how the dictionary defines “catharsis”). When done well, it also changes the way we feel — it alters our moods and transforms our feelings as we listen.
Ugliness is part of life. Pain, fear, hatred, and disgust are all around us (and within us), even if we don’t allow those feelings to consume us. Maybe we need music as an outlet for those sensations, as a mechanism that allows us to preserve our own balance.
And maybe emotions that are rooted in pain, fear, hatred, and disgust are simply more powerful than other emotions, so that music which captures those moods and makes us feel them as we listen is especially powerful. Maybe Primitive Man picked their name because these emotions are the most primitive and the most ancient parts of what it means to be human.
Most people don’t enjoy confronting such feelings or experiencing them — they prefer music that’s a form of escape from them. They would be repelled by the music of bands such as Primitive Man. And that’s why, as Durf wrote, this kind of music has no commercial appeal. But maybe it’s potency lies in the very fact that it doesn’t provide an escape — it doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of life.
I don’t mean to push this idea too hard. Undeniably, music that captures and creates moods of wonder, awe, joy, and love can be powerful, too (though you don’t find much of that in metal). So is music that captures the wild feeling of throwing off restraints. But for some of us, there is a unique power in ugly, vile, disgusting music.
So, those are my ideas. I hope you’ll feel like providing your own answers to the question in the title of this post. The Comment section awaits…