(Andy Synn prepared this essay, with numerous examples of music, about the value that lyrics can contribute to the enjoyment of metal if written and delivered with conviction.)
So in lieu of another edition of Waxing Lyrical (don’t worry, the column’s not going anywhere, it’s just very dependent on the availability of the bands I talk to) I’ve decided to ask you all a very important question:
What’s more important to you, the lyrics or the music… the message or the medium?
Ok, so let’s clear something up straight away. In reality it’s not actually a binary choice like that. No-one’s forcing you to pick one or the other and there are umpteen artists out there to whom lyrics are clearly just as important as the musical canvas on which they are then painted.
The real question I suppose is about how important lyrics are to you, as the listener, and how important it is that you’re able to connect with what they’re saying.
Because, and this may come as a shock, there are actually various ways in which you can connect with a vocalist and their lyrics.
Most obviously, it’s always easiest to connect to a band when the lyrics touch upon something personally relevant to you… whether it’s something personal or political or spiritual in nature, anytime a band is talking about something that’s familiar to you, that means a lot to you, that puts your own thoughts into words and then sets them to music, it’s easier to make a connection with what they’re saying.
Of course, even in these circumstances the delivery of the vocals/lyrics is often key – if the vocalist isn’t able to imbue what they’re saying with the requisite passion and energy then it doesn’t really matter if they’re saying all the right things because they’re still saying them in the wrong way.
On the flip side of the coin, I personally find it just as compelling to listen to a vocalist who clearly believes, heart and soul, in what they’re singing/screaming about, even if I don’t necessarily agree/connect with the specific content of the lyrics.
Take for example the Christian and Gnostic philosophies which underpin the new Slaves BC and Panegyrist albums, or the more Satanic and occult explorations of bands like Bestia Arcana and Rites of Thy Degringolade.
I don’t believe the same things as any of these artists, but their beliefs and the ways in which they process and perform them, are endlessly fascinating to me. And not just because of the thematic and dramatic richness of their lyrics and the beliefs behind them, but because the vocals are delivered in such a way that you can really feel how passionate and vehement the vocalists are about what they’re saying.
In this sense it’s both the message and the medium which are important – because without the message the medium would just be noise, and without the medium the message would have no voice.
The same thing applies when bands decide to communicate their socio-political beliefs through their music. I don’t necessarily have to agree with their perspective or opinion to be able to appreciate it.
Understandably there are always lines to be drawn as to whether you, or I, feel like a band is attempting to say or to justify a belief (religious, political, or otherwise) in something abhorrent or indefensible, but there’s a difference between not sharing a band’s beliefs and actively disagreeing with them… at least in my mind anyway.
On the one hand there are bands like Misery Index and Phantom Winter, whose lyrics I’ve always admired for their ability to take quite complex, often quite divisive, issues and address them in a way which is both clear and concise, yet which still serves to inform the listener without turning into a full-on political polemic.
Then there are artists like Dawn Ray’d and Peregrine (whose 2008 album, The Agrarian Curse, I only discovered recently thanks to Matt from Slugdge), the latter of whom use their lyrics to argue in favour of an aggressive form of anarcho-primitivism that calls for an almost total rejection of modern civilisation.
This isn’t a philosophy I agree with at all – I’m all about progression, not regression, truth be told – but the band (and particularly vocalist/lyricist Kevin Tucker) make a compelling case regardless, and the vehemence with which the lyrics are delivered hammers home how important this ideology clearly is to them.
Once again, the question here is not whether I’m willing to embrace the band’s beliefs as my own, but whether those beliefs are, in their own way, backed up by real conviction.
Much less divisive, for the most part at least, are the bands whose lyrics are more about telling a story, whether these stories are drawn from history, fiction, or fantasy.
For example, I’ve learned a surprising amount about some of the hidden history of WWII from listening to The Monolith Deathcult over the years, as the band have written songs about everything from the post-war actions of the Nakam insurgency group to the little-known existence of several Muslim Waffen-SS units during the latter stages of the war.
At the same time, I’ve always been entertained by the prevailing Horror movie aesthetic of bands like Aborted and Benighted, who’ve consistently succeeded in intermingling songs about both real-life murderers and tracks about fictional serial-killers in a manner that’s both entertaining and informative, as well as the imaginative Sci-Fi storytelling of groups like Dvne and Khonsu, who are able to embed their speculative lyrical concepts with a gratifying amount of emotion.
And while this blurring of the line between fact and fiction can sometimes be used for nefarious purposes (there are definitely some bands out there who’ve tried to conceal their own beliefs behind a thin veneer of fantasy and/or vague historical justifications) those groups who are able to strike a careful balance between the two are often capable of helping you expand your mind at the same time as getting you to bang your head.
Obviously there are numerous other examples I could cite (many of whom you can learn more about by perusing all the published editions of Waxing Lyrical), and many other ways of getting your message across besides those I’ve singled-out above, but I think the prevailing point I’d like our readers to take away from this piece is that while it is certainly possible to create enjoyable, headbangable Metal without putting too much thought (or originality) into the lyrics, this is really a missed opportunity.
Ultimately the medium is always stronger with a strong message attached to it, and the message itself is always stronger when delivered via the right medium.
If you want to learn more about the lyrics and messages of the various bands involved you can check out all the previously-published editions of Waxing Lyrical at the links below:
Lyrics are important for me, but less so than the music. I will enjoy a well-written song, but something that doesn’t rhyme and was clearly written by someone who doesn’t know the language all that well, won’t kill the enjoyment.
That said, I do avoid NSBM – even though some bands are amazing musicians, that’s some shit I am not going to tolerate.
Also, thanks for DVNE.
I’m the same, generally. Really good lyrics enhance the experience no end, but I can also enjoy a song where the lyrics aren’t necessarily the most original or insightful, as long as they’re delivered with passion and conviction.
It’s only when someone drops a real clunker that it ruins the immersion for me.
As for Dvne, you’re welcome. Fantastic band, and one of my favourite albums of last year.
I can’t seem to find a particular place to land on this issue. My favorite works tend to be ones that combine the best of both music and lyrics. But then there are others where I don’t really care as long as the music pleases my ears. If one or the other is *glaringly* bad though, it will ruin an album for me.
Something like Machine Head’s new work is just gratingly bad (like the song Triple Beam, etc)
/shrug… I guess it really is decided in my head on a per-band basis.
Yeah… while I admire the guy’s spirit, to an extent, a lot of Flynn’s lyrics read like he’s desperately trying to be James Hetfield, in terms of writing these long, grandiose social/personal/political statements, but has to do so using half-remember wikipedia articles and twitter as his only sources.
There’s also personal experience that plays into whether I enjoy lyrics/music or not. I tend to shy away from 99.9% of anything remotely “Christian” at this point because that was a past era of my life that I don’t really care to live an ounce of anymore. Even if the bands’ lyrics aren’t overtly of the faith… just something about it being “music I listened to in that era” makes me want to stay away now.
Maybe I just revisit this, but I’m not sure. There were a very *few* good bands within that scene that were actually enjoyable and not “overt” about their faith…
Meh, idk… the mental battle rages on!
Funnily enough I was raised Catholic, and though I don’t adhere to that anymore by any means, I still have an appreciation for a lot of the prose and poetry and imagery that surrounds it, particularly when it’s used/subverted by a clever writer/lyricist.
If it gets overly preachy though… well, usually that’s my cue to bail.
But, for the most part, I can appreciate someone who has sincere Christian beliefs the same way I can appreciate someone who has sincere Satanic beliefs, etc, as long as I find their world-view interesting. It doesn’t meant I agree with or approve of it, necessarily, but I do find the process of belief endlessly fascinating.
Yeah I guess it’s all a matter of how and how well it is expressed.
Generally speaking, lyrics are secondary to the music for me unless they’re exceptional in some way, be it imagery, conviction, delivery, how they connect to the music, etc. It seems to me like a lot of metal lyrics are just kind of there, neither adding nor detracting from the music. Definitely a wasted opportunity.
A lot of them definitely are. And sometimes that’s part of the fun. Bullish pseudo-satanic nonsense like Goatwhore or “trying to be smart but actually making no sense” sci-fi lyrics defintiely have their place. Not everything needs to be super serious after all.
But I definitely find that I can gain a deeper appreciation for a band if their lyrics have some depth and soul to them.