(Andy Synn prepared these meditations on why he listens to metal.)
Like most of you (or so I’m assuming for the purposes of this column) the above question is one that I was, for a long time, quite intimately familiar with. And though I tend to hear it less frequently nowadays than I used to, variants of it still crop up now and again:
“How can you listen to that stuff, it’s just noise?”
“Where’s the melody?”
“It all just sounds the same!”
And, as much as I’m occasionally tempted by the knee-jerk, involuntary reaction (“YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!) I’m not an angst-ridden teenager anymore… I’m an angst-ridden adult, and thus far more willing to engage with these sorts of questions and statements, and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Plus, it’s actually a good question… why DO we listen to Metal?
I guess to answer that, you have to be willing to engage in some serious introspection, as well as some honest-to-goodness critical thinking about this genre that we love so much.
Although if that’s too much to ask, I understand. Please close your browser and go back to listening to [insert band name here].
Now, obviously what I’m about to say purely applies to me personally. I’m not trying to claim my experience(s) is/are universal, nor do I speak for the rest of the staff (regular or irregular… though I suppose we’re all pretty “irregular”) here at NCS.
But, if what I’m about to say makes sense to you, if you find yourself reading the following paragraphs and thinking “yeah, that sounds just like me”… you might want to consider getting professional help.
Anyway, one of the common reasons I hear bandied about as to why people listen to Metal over other genres is because it’s more “honest” and more “real”. And though there’s definitely something to that, it’s still a bit too much of a sweeping statement for my liking.
I mean, yes, I love Metal for its integrity. When an artist really means something… you can feel it. That emotion, the righteous indignation… the rage, the pain, the sorrow… it seeps out of your speakers like an almost physical thing.
But that’s not to say that all Metal is like that. There’s definitely acts out there (naming no names) happy to fake it, happy to pander to their audience with a calculated facsimile of real emotion. You can probably name quite a few of them off the top of your head.
Not only that, but to say Metal is the only “real” or “honest” genre is both insulting to other genres, and patently false.
Of course, when most people say things like this they’re usually, consciously or unconsciously, comparing Metal to the generic plague-mass of “Pop” music they see on TV and hear on the radio, which isn’t exactly setting a high bar. And lumping every other style or genre in with this isn’t exactly fair either.
Let’s face it – just as there are Metal bands who play the “Pop” game (and I’m not just talking about the so-called “accessible” Metal bands… there are bands who are accessible to a wide audience without lowering themselves to the mass-appeal formula, just as there are supposedly “serious” and “heavy” bands who play their own version of the “Pop” game), there are also full-on “Pop” artists who manage to make music with both meaning and integrity.
It’s a comparatively rare phenomenon, it’s true, as the “Pop” music industry is, well, exactly that… an “industry” based around the conveyor-belt creation and marketing of music as a “product” for easy consumption… but it does happen.
So yes, Metal’s integrity and honesty is certainly something to be lauded, and certainly one reason why I, personally, love it so much. But it’s not the only reason, nor a sufficient explanation, for why the genre appeals to me above all others.
Connected to the above issue is the idea of Metal as the most cathartic of genres, and this one definitely has something to it as well, though it’s clearly not the only one capable of offering its audience a unique form of emotional release.
Of course, there’s a subjective element to all this – neither you nor I can say that the person weeping along to the latest post-break-up power-ballad is necessarily experiencing an emotion that’s any less real or any less raw than the one we feel when listening to My Dying Bride (although there’s more hay to be made when questioning which of the two artists offers more depth of thought and feeling) – but there’s definitely something to the assertion that Metal can offer a uniquely cathartic experience to its listeners, as it’s one of the few genres that seems able to communicate, and articulate (amongst other things), the sheer rage and fury and frustration of human existence.
No, it’s not entirely alone in that respect (I would argue, for example, that there are strands of Hip-Hop which are just as furious and nihilistic as even the nastiest Black Metal and that one man with an acoustic guitar and a fire in his heart can write a protest song every bit as angry as even the most ferocious of Grindcore), but whereas so much of “popular” music seems to deal in such a limited emotional spectrum, Metal – for me at least – spans a much wider range of emotions.
There’s Metal that makes me feel sorrow and anguish, joy and triumph, apoplectic rage and righteous indignation… Metal that deals with love and loss, pain and pleasure and pure, unreasoning hatred… all this and more. And though there’s often a move to dismiss these feelings as “teen angst”, or as primitive emotions (for primitive people), the very fact that Metal has such a wide scope is one of the things which drew me in, and one of the things which keeps me coming back, day in and day out, searching for new music and new expressions of real, honest emotion.
Ultimately, the reason I listen to Metal isn’t just one reason at all… it’s a combination of factors, some extremely complex, some… less so.
After all, there’s a simple joy in feeling that thrum of a cranked up, crushing guitar riff deep in your chest that practically transcends rational analysis.
But, if I WAS pushed to sum it up in one word, one statement that combines the reasons I have mentioned above with all those I’ve left unspoken, it would be… energy.
Yes, there’s a sense of vitality, of life, of pure and irrepressible energy to Metal which I just find missing in most other music.
Whether it’s the energy of aggression, or simply one conjured from the sheer speed, the sheer heaviness, and the sheer passion being put in by the artist, it’s this sense of energy, this sense of dynamism and unstoppable force behind the music which is at the root of my love for Metal.
From the slowest to the speediest, from the most melodic to the gnarliest, ugliest examples I can think of, there’s an animus to my favourite artists that just seems absent (or wholly artificial) in other genres.
From the generic “club bangers” to the commercialised “empowerment” of your average pop anthem, so much of what we’re exposed to, so much of what we’re sold, is written to a Pavlovian formula, one that’s been analysed and refined to perfection by teams of producers and hit-makers over the years, so that every song exists within the same carefully calculated dynamic range, and every listener starts salivating precisely at the same moment when they’re “waiting for the drop”.
It’s loud and brash and perfectly polished, don’t get me wrong. But there’s no energy to it. No life. It’s music by rote. Pumped out algorithmically to elicit a particular involuntary reaction. That’s all.
Don’t get me wrong, the same sort of thing happens in certain corners of the Metal world too. Those 70,000 interchangeable Thrash bands are playing those same variants on classic Slayer and Metallica riffs for a reason… they’re familiar, they’re formulaic, and they get a certain basic reaction from a certain type of listener. Of course, they may not have any of the spark, the fire, the energy as the originals, but they work – after a fashion at least.
Similarly, it’s why it’s possible for heavy bands to “go Pop” (or, at least, go “mainstream”) without trying to sound like Katy Perry – going Pop isn’t necessarily about trading in your guitars for go-go boots and synchronised dance moves, it’s about changing your style (sometimes a lot, sometimes only a little) purely to elicit this superficial Pavlovian response… you can keep your riffs distorted and keep on yelling all you want, but once you start playing the Pop game, and fitting your songs to the formula in order to “compete” on their terms… well, it’s a slippery slope from there in my opinion.
And this formulaic, intrinsic lack of any true sense of energy or vitality is precisely why Metal bands going “Pop” (I’m not going to say “selling out”) just doesn’t work for me. It simply robs the music of its life.
It’s why that new Astronoid album DOES work for me, despite (or, more likely, because of) how joyously and shamelessly melodic it is, but why the new Whitechapel feels completely flat and lifeless in comparison to their previous material, despite maintaining much of its heaviness.
You probably have your own reasons why you love Metal. Obviously I have more than just the one too (I could have gone on and on… but even I get bored of myself after a while). But right at the root of my love of Metal is the sheer energy it carries with it.
It’s why the most punishing of chugging Hardcore tracks can appeal to me in the same way as the most raging blackened blast-fest, and why the most ponderous Funeral Doom song can carry the same weight and momentum as the most dazzling of light-speed Tech Death shenanigans.
Yes, it’s got to be “real”. It’s got to be “honest”. It’s got to connect with me emotionally. But without that sense of energy, without that spark of life, it’s all so much sound and fury, signifying… nothing?
Bravo!!! I love metal!! Haha. In all honesty, I do love metal for many of the same reasons, but key to that is its diversity, as you stated so succinctly. It truly hits almost every corner of my emotional needs.
It can even be soft and heartfelt. Especially with Post Rock as a legitimate pool to pull influence from.
And yet, when you go back and listen to certain older metal, you can see those elements being used even then.
Absolutely. I found heavy metal as I sought extremity, and I feel like metal is the same as any art form in the sense that it simply reaches a certain group of people. I’ve created my share of visual art in my life but music, metal specifically, is the only art form that consistently moves me on an emotional (maybe spiritual even?) level. I cannot create it, I am simply a slave to it, at any emotional time it will find me and bring me happiness and feeling when nothing else will. It can pull me out of depression or it can crawl down to keep me company. Thinking about connections in sound between bands and genres brings me joy. I could go on but..
Nice Macbeth reference there at the end, great read as well!
My usual response is “how can you not?”
In fact, there are two questions in this post: Why do you listen to that stuff? and What makes Metal a valuable music genre? I think you did great with both.
I often hear people tell me that what I listen to is just shit because they can’t find the hooks and/or as you mentioned it the melodies. They also think that music should be well produced and sound crisp clean all the time. Most of the times those people won’t go into any other genre’s lesser commercial artists. They need to connect immediately with the new music they’re listening to.
Personally, I love Metal but not all of its subgenres and I connect with many elements that are making me feel right: technicality, intensity, musicianship, lyrics, its way of digging the darker places of the human mind, etc. Sometimes, I just like the fact that it gives me energy or it motivates me. Other times, Black Metal can help me think or even relax.
Lately, I’ve been on a dryspell of appreciating bands since I receive many, many promos and the constant flow of new releases makes it hard to actually take the time to listen carefully and appreciate new music. The quantity is no often synonymous of quality. The magic is then diluated to my ears until I get to a gem that makes me believe again that there is still great things to come.
For me, one of the things I really appreciate about extreme metal is how it sounds so inhuman. And by that, I mean I am often left sitting there wondering, “how did human beings create such sounds?” An album like Panzer Division Marduk or De Mysteriis dom Sathanas sounds like it came straight out of Hell. The dark sounds and thematic material are also part of it. The evil riffs (and occasionally, well done occult-themed lyrics like those of Watain, Funeral Mist, and Mortuus-era Marduk) help me immerse myself in a sort of dark, horror fantasy land. It scratches an itch I can’t get anywhere else in life.
I love Metal because of artistic sincerity, emotional depth and variety in it. Metal musicians certainly don’t make music for money (except for some bands, which all of us know and which I hate from my bottom of my heart). Metal has definitely much more virtuoso musicians than all genres combined ever, who have devoted their life to make other people’s life beautiful, but mostly remain unnoticed in this cruel world. Personally, my life would be entirely different, had I not listened to Metal in my life. Also, mainly I love Metal, because it does not have any restrictions on the music (e.g. Instruments used, vocal techniques, song structures, lyrics etc.).
Whenever I have these thoughts, I become depressed that how much great music goes even unnoticed daily.
Metal is pure art !!!
That is so true !!!
I listen to metal because it drowns out the voices.
I love it because it makes me hear voices. In fact, Andy Synn has been a figment of my imagination for years.
I love figments. Caramel Samoas are pretty tasty, too.
I’m not sure you’ve ever had a figment like Mr. Synn. And I don’t believe I’ve ever had a Caramel Samoa. Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral? And is it alive or dead when consumed? I have a list on additional questions once you’ve narrowed it down.
It’s a cookie and it’s dead. At least I think it is. I’m going to have nightmares, now. Thanks.
A very vocal figment 😉 The question is, which of you is the educated, though somewhat deranged, Dr Jekyll and which the animal I-kill-every-now-and-then Mr Hyde?
It’s more “Dr Jekyll and Dr Jackass”
I definitely lack the education to be Dr. Jekyll, and as long as I keep the voices quite I don’t meet the requirements to be Mr. Hyde. You can call me Al.
For me, it’s the emotional release that it gives me. I am 60 and have a very stressful job. Metal definitely helps me get the anger out.
In 2013, my father-in-law died unexpectedly while we were visiting him in California. I had known and loved him for almost forty years. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to grieve because of everything that needed to be done. Funeral, sell the house, endless paperwork. Adding to it was the fact that my father was in hospital recovering from (another) major surgery. I finally got back to the Netherlands about 2 weeks after my father-in-law died. I was a wreck. My wife was still there helping to sort things out. That weekend, I discovered that there was a doom and metal festival in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. It was just a couple of days after Roadburn so some pretty big names were going to be there. I went. One of the groups that I was desperate to see was Cough. I spent some time talking to them before the show. Nice guys. Once they started playing, I forgot everything. I was so immersed that for 5 minutes after the show was over, I couldn’t speak. I just paced back and forth, puffing like a buffalo. When I could finally speak, I said to Dave that I felt like a mountain had fallen on me. It was absolutely the perfect music and experience in my moment of grief. I still remember exactly how I felt. No other music could have done that for me.
That was beautifully well put and I can definitely identify with the experience.
I love metal because it is the only genre that genuinely covers all aspects of the human experience. Without repeating you, I find that metal makes room for any and all emotions. Love (or lust), rage, despair, even hope and joy.
Furthermore, it metal provides a platform for any worldview. The scene is replete with bands offering various political ideals, or the repudiation of those ideals with which they disagree. Different, even antithetical, religious viewpoints are expressed within the metal genre.
I concede that there are pop, hip-hop, country, etc. artists out there who could make the same boast. Nevertheless, the energy that you mentioned resonates with me on a subjective level. Since the human experience is a subjective one (for my purposes here), metal speaks to me in a way that other genres do not.
Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. My response to this question is that the music that most moves me (and it’s not always metal) involves an intense expression of emotion. Like you say, we seek catharsis. A power ballad or the climax in an electronic or post-rock jam can hit me the same way (formulas work for a reason, at least until they don’t). And, yes, most artists are “performing” to a degree; anyone who feels ultra-intensely all the time is courting burnout. But metal bands have a way of convincing me more often than most, which probably has to do with the physical intensity required to even make the music. This brings me to my last point, which is that different forms of art appeal to different parts of me: reading/writing engages my mind and heart; visual art is similar. Music is the art form that engages me intellectually, emotionally, AND physically, and ever since I first heard that Iron Maiden tape in high school, metal has just been the genre that does it best. To borrow from Sunn O))): Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results.
And what the hell with that Astronoid?! Holy shit that’s good.
I’ll pretty much agree with everything you say here, and add one thing I like to really indulge in. Lyrical themes. I really am a devout lover of great and unique lyricism, and while metal (especially extreme metal) is known for keeping nothing off limits, I love the excess and grandeur of concept albums (who’da thunk that) and how they try to create a bridge between different media and populate it with the things I love about both.
I love how the concepts I love in literature tend to pop up in metal. Of course, there are just as many mindless shitty lyricists populating metals communities as there any, but I find really unique and powerful writers inside metal that speak directly to and about issues I find both intellectually fascinating and emotionally satisfying.
Yes this is a big part for me too – I’ve come across so many literature and movie references and been exposed to so many ideas – and artworks – via metal bands. In that sense metal becomes like a conduit for sharing other cultural creations as well. Damn, just this week Alvin Toffler died and I remarked to some friends how I’d come across his works via Burton Bell mentioning them in an interview.
Of course, there’s more than one reason why I love it, but the first thing that comes to mind for me is how complex, dense and layered the music can be. You can have so many things going on at once between all the instruments and vocals; everything works in concert. And it isn’t afraid to throw out the verse-chorus-verse song structure.
Sure, sometimes metal is simple, and I love that too. I like music that sounds dark, evil and passionate and I love riffs, though I can’t really explain why that is. But metal is probably the only genre that consistently checks all those boxes.
You nailed it with ENERGY. Metal just makes me feel alive.
one of the thing i like the most about this place, are these mosh pit articles, i really missed them.
when in the beginning of And Plague Flowers The Kaleidoscope, the violin stops and you hear that hit hat that begins the shitstorm, and a tingling pass through your legs to your balls and end up in you head, and that happens EVERY time you listen to the song… THAT’S why i listen metal.
Great piece of writing Andy!
I get the question “why” at times too (though people really are getting less sarcastic about me listening to metal as compared to 10 years ago I’ve noticed), I usually answer with something like the following:
* (some) people listen to music because it evokes (and/or absorbs) emotions. Most people prefer these emotions to be positive; forms of happiness (excitement, humour, love). Many of these people can also appreciate small amounts of sadness into their musical appetite.
However, only very few people appreciate to be confronted by strongly ‘negative’ emotions and their darkest thoughts: anger, aggression, grief. I am one of these people. It both fascinates as comforts me to listen to the ravings of death, black and doom metal bands.
* I appreciate extremity in music. Pushing boundaries. Metal – more than most other genres – excels at breaking new grounds and challenging the listener.
* A lot of metal music is complex; a form of art that takes time and effort to unravel and understand. This also makes it much more rewarding to listen to on the long run than for example a rock album that sounds nice at the first spin and starts boring at the third.
* Metal is full of musicians that do not primarily aim to earn money, but to express their creativity in art. Metal just doesn’t pay very well, with only a handful of exceptions to that rule. That makes the music all the more ‘honest’ to me.
* Finally, a lot of metal albums tell a story, complete with deep lyrics and amazing artwork. To me, because the stories they tell are darker they are all the more beautiful. I don’t know how this works. It just does.
Great respons to a great article.
As much as I like, and agree with, the main article, I did miss your point number three in it. Sure, it doesn’t apply to all metal, not even half to be honest, but when it’s there, it’s something else all together. I’ve heard my share of other genres, and very few can mach the depth, the substance, the intricate refined sophisticated finesse. The obvious exception among other musical styles is classical music, witch invented this, and is also a major inspirational source for many of these metal bands.
Along with your point number four, anti-commercialism, and point five, complete complexity, that spells true art!
My main defense for all the other primitive, brute and vile stuff I enjoy, is often a rather simple one; it’s masculine, tough, lively and filled with high-octane adrenaline. I guess summing it up with “energy” does the trick, even if I’m primitive enough to simply insult every other genre as music for pussies, children, and elder women. I should be ashamed of my savage methods and uncivilized behavior. But I guess being nihilistically antagonistic in a childish manner is my protest song. I think I’ll stick to it; their fake music sucks 🙂
Also, kudos for point number two! Challenging the listener holds so much more integrity than the simplistic conveyor-belt method.
I think I like metal because I spent my teenage years listening to Metallica, Refused, At the Gates, Sepultura and other bands that made my ears used to relatively aggressive guitar sounds. A simple answer, and an answer not totally in line with the article, but I really do think that anybody with a genuine interest in music can learn to appreciate any genre, given enough time.
Speaking of pop, Fever Ray is definitely a pop album (arguably drone pop), and most of my metal loving friends are really into that album. But pop is hard, because sometimes it just means relatively structured music that isn’t agressive enough to be called industrial or metal (and which can obviously be as artisticly relevant as any other type of music), and sometimes it means, as you say, “The Indistry”.
I feel like there is so much great music to just exclude metal because it sounds like just noise. Perhaps some vocalist is growling, screaming, or whatever, and I have no idea why unless I listen and understand.
I found that once I started listening critically, perhaps, and because some sound drew me in, that I found something more. I love the musicians ability to play something so complex sounding. I love how the vocalist can do that growl or scream with their voice. I still have times I don’t understand what is said or exactly what I’m hearing. I hear the music, patterns, content, and meaning exactly like any other genre.
I do use the chaos of metal to help with the chaos in my head at times. I use metal to influence the way I want to feel. I can use any genre to influence a feeling or guide my mood to where I want to be. It’s an endless pursuit.
More than anything, I think, is that music is always tied to my memories. When I hear a song it instantly pulls up a memory. It’s full sensory playback. You know when it was, where it was, who you were with, what you were doing, eating, and how all of it smelled. My experience with metal over the years always pulls up some memory.
There are also memories of me selling CDs because my friends not liking my music. Not sure why. It’s my music and memories.