Friday, November 19, 2010

"I Hate Keyboards in Metal"

"Can't stand growly vocals". "All this doom stuff is too slow, it's boring". "Power metal is cheesy". Statements like that are so broad as to be nearly meaningless as actual qualifications of taste.

With so much metal music out there, it's near-certain that there is a band somewhere out there that has devised a permutation of the form that utilizes whatever stylistics one might consider awful in such a way that they're convincing and engaging, beautiful. The more you dig (especially in the underground) the more you find beautiful exceptions to any rule. Saying "I haven't heard a lot of Heavy Metal music in which keyboards played a significant role" is a much safer statement for example, but one that very rarely substitutes its more extreme variant. Why do people refuse to dig in a music they profess to love and why do they prefer this broad and useless pontification?

Such statements are useful for turning ignorance into a strength; The person behind the statement probably hasn't had enough close experience with that they dislike (which is generally understandable, do you spend a lot of time with art that irritates you?) so they take their limited phenomenological data and with it fashion a categorical statement that seems final and complete. Seen this, done with it, on with the next artifact of culture that needs codification. Progress!

The person who is receiving such a statement might be impressed by how airtight it is. I know something concrete about them, I know where to stand with them when it comes to Keyboards & Metal. I know I can turn to this piece of data when I want them to agree with me and reinforce our relationship. Since I'm so impressed, I might adopt this position, also. This is how conservative minds work, they enjoy clean-cut positions and they're always on the lookout for new such statements that fit their preconceptions and opinion bias. Effectively, when a person is making such a statement, they're trying to a) create controversy, that means, put attention on themselves, and b) appeal to conservative like-minded folks. All this with as little personal risk as possible: after all, they're not putting out there a revealing personal opinion, they're just spouting clichés, which are anonymous and endless.

I do not consider the conservative impulse to be necessarily 'evil'. It's certainly one of the psychological traits that has kept us alive in very strenuous evolutionary situations in the past. Not every member of the caveman tribe should feel compelled to put their hands in the fire to test out if it 'really hurts' like the village elder told them, nor should a second hunter-gatherer go up to pet the rhino next to the pulverized remains of the first one.

However connecting the dots from that tangent to our initial subject, why do people treat culture identification with the same reflexes that they treat survival situations like those above? The telling answer is that social gaming (where 'taste' and 'art knowledge' are usually tested) can be just as scary as a rhino charge. It brings up all sorts of insecurities and hang-ups, dirty laundry that the individual feels much compelled to fashion into some sort of kingly dress and hope nobody notices the stink. The more self-conscious and insecure the music nerd, the more hardened their armor.

Most of the categorical statements I'm talking about here have evolved (de-volved?) into clichés in metal communities. Behind every cliché like that there is a big fat ugly truth: lack of profound intimate experience is substituted for communally-bulwarked identification, group-think that tries to pass off ignorance for self-assuredness. Unless one has a very thorough experience with metal music, their general opinions have little to do with the music and much more with themselves structuring a useful identity. Even if they do know more about Heavy Metal than most, broad categorical statements are so loaded with the charges of social gaming that even when meant honestly and innocently, they tend to derail any argument into polemics.

For example, in my little chronological chart of metal here, I note 'post-metal, metalcore and other irrelevancies' which is exactly such a statement. I did not mean this as an attack on these sorts of musics, more that regardless of how good such music might be, whatever is metal in it has been so inverted or diluted so as to put the music beyond the scope of this website (though not of my interest in general, I keep up with post-metal due to social fascination). I should not have written that, then, because it diverts interest from the information presented (the chronology) to this guy Helm who doesn't like post-metal. On the most essential level, what bands or styles of metal I like are absolutely irrelevant to what I'm trying to accomplish with this website.

One should then not expect that thorough experience of the art form would lead to a more permissive stance and less categorical damnation of this and that. Knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to less hard opinions. Most of the people I know who are metal encyclopaedias (myself included) engage in this self-identification as well, though perhaps their opinions might be less broad and more nuanced here and there. It seems much of what drives an impulsive information cataloger is an addiction to the social gaming applications of their knowledge. Poor Socrates who knew too much yet professed to know too little, not a sterling example for most.

So when you come across metalheads or other music nerds who speak in an endless torrent of broad categorical statements, condemning genres and styles of music left and right, keep in mind you're in the presence of somebody who really doesn't have the music at heart when they speak but instead they're furiously gaming you and any other onlooker, trying to either annoy you or get you on their side. Their greatest defeat is if you completely overlook their efforts and have no opinion on them whatsoever. If you do not notice them, you do not include them in your life. If you don't include them in your life, they don't exist. They feel this acutely.

Is this a cruel thing to do? Initially I think so, there is some sadism and revenge for every time we've been ignored, when we ignore somebody else. However, when ignored once too many an individual might feel compelled to reconfigure their social approach and create a persona that is less dependent on external validation. This is healthier for them and healthier for the social dialogue over art. Or anything else, for that matter: as you might have noticed a lot of the broader critique on this blog could easily have its subcultural identifiers switched for those of another clique; I'm looking at the world at large through the narrow scope of Heavy Metal.

The type of statement on Heavy Metal that is useful for the culture and useful for the individual, in my opinion, is that which is qualified not with vague group-think mandates such as "Keyboards suck" but with exposition of actual personal experience. The risk involved in saying why one thinks this is so, is bound to humanize the statement (human beings, if allowed, cannot help but be human beings) and since we're all made of the same meats but in startlingly different permutations, clichés are weakened by this personalized exposition. The downside is that people can't do this in snappy, highly stylized pieces of snark in which the internet usually likes to converse, they'd have to write more in-depth and more at length. Well... that's a downside for twitter users mostly!


  1. I'm not so sure if categorical statements are social gaming in all situations. For example I have a friend who listens to Heavy Metal but dislikes growled vocals and he brings it up only when I try to convert him into listening Autopsy or something.

  2. I don't think all of them are. But on the internet, and especially a bunch of them together, pretty sure.

    In any case, your friend would probably stand a better chance of wrapping his head around Autopsy on his own. My initial impression wasn't very good either, as it wasn't when I first listened to In The Woods... Actually the latter were terrifying and sickening, so that was even more to my surprise how now their debut is one of my favourite records ever.

    When peers pressure us to like something we have an initial bad impression of, we rebel. When figures of authority do the same later on (magazines, tastemakers, so on) we sometimes give in. This creates that really weird scenario where you might be hyping Autopsy to your friend for years and he's going to be all fuck that, and then if some magazine he really likes runs a 6 page piece on the new Autopsy record, he might come up to you and say 'how about them Autopsy, I love them!'.

  3. Emperor turned me off to keyboards in Metal; Windir and Burzum turned me back on. And while they're not Metal, I can't imagine Rush w/out keyboards.

  4. La Villa Strangiato without keyboards == ripping out one third of the charm. Impossible.

    Me and my friend Nick once met this guy at this beer pub who was into black metal. He had a stern face, his front hair covered his eyes and when asked a question he would pause before answering as if counting his words very carefully.

    So in the midst of the usual metalhead get-to-know-each-other ritual, Nick asked him what he thought of Emperor. He mulled it over significantly and then said in a small voice with a hint of exasperation

    "...Too much keyboard".

    "... πολλά πλήκτρα." (the Greek version is funnier, somehow)

    You could tell the guy wanted to like Emperor SO BAD but yet... keyboards.

    Whereas I do not feel likewise about Emperor (whom I respect more than enjoy but would never alter their genetics by removing Mortiis from the early equation), we still get a laugh out of that response once in a while with Nick. That you see, was the opposite of a cliche. The dude didn't go for the 'easy' answer in a milisecond. He deliberated, tried to avoid having to say something everyone else would say but in the end relented and came out with it, only with at least a different wording.

    People who say the truth instinctively avoid cliches because cliches are a different sort of lingual weapon. They're not untruth necessarily, they sidestep the necessity of truth or falseness in a statement. When pressured to say what's in a cliche for truth, the popular wording at least, must be substituted for a less pure, more imperfect, yet more human and personal take.

    A lot of metalheads do not even notice the keyboards in their favourite songs. They're there, in the background, orchestrated by some producer or engineer who actually knew how to write music, augmenting a chorus here, a bridge there. Painkiller's full of keyboards. Death records have keyboards. I realize 'Keyboards suck' originated from the lengthy Wakeman keyboard solo boredom of the 70's, but gosh, people should pay more attention to their Heavy Metal anyway, there's just so many synth pads!

  5. I don't know that first word, but Plektra? Is that like the ancient "plektron," that which strikes the lyre?

    As far as cliche as defense, it seems like most people who say "keys aren't Metal" do so, as you say, without experience of them in Metal, which is an odd thing, again, as you say, considering the frequency of their use.

    I liked Painkiller when it came out and I still like it. I didn't realize it was Priest trying to "stay relevant." Just thought they were appropriating keys like every other band. I love the cover art, too. Very pop.

  6. You know 'πολλά'. 'Hoi Polloi'?

    Yes, pliktro comes from the verb plitto, which is 'to strike'.

    I think a lot of people who say that hate keys in metal would be startled if we could take the mixing multitracks of some of their favourite records and remove the synth pads and found sounds and all that crap producers put in there to justify their existence. You don't appreciate them until you start making music yourself and you think "this needs more... atmosphere... what do I do what do I do? Do I just stack more guitars harmonizing on there?"

    I have a love/hate relationship with Painkiller. On one hand it has some perfectly written songs. On the other, Chris Tsangaridis' production is pretty taxing on my ears and it set the standard for a decade of plastic metal.

    The perfect encapsulation of the problem with Painkiller is the song 'Touch of Evil'. Which I love extremely, when Halford hits 'You're Possessing Me' I could fuck a mountain in two, figuratively. But.... listen to that song right now and count how many hockey keyboard pads Tsangarides fit in that otherwise classic sounding Judas Priest stomper. They play all the melodies! They make a dramatic Halford performance sound melodramatic. If there's one thing I'd like Halford to re-do before his voice dies completely, it's Touch of Evil without so many keyboards.

    Also, I downloaded a Weapon record because of the Left Hand Path review. Wonder how I'll like it.


    Fuck, I guess Priest agree with me on those synth pads. Halford can't hit the ecstasy of that song anymore, sadly.

  8. "I have a love/hate relationship with Painkiller. On one hand it has some perfectly written songs. On the other, Chris Tsangaridis' production is pretty taxing on my ears and it set the standard for a decade of plastic metal."

    I feel exactly the same about it. I really want to like it more but it sounds too cold and lifeless to me. As such it's merely a good headbanging record to listen when drinking or something.

  9. And about this..

    "When peers pressure us to like something we have an initial bad impression of, we rebel. When figures of authority do the same later on (magazines, tastemakers, so on) we sometimes give in."

    Wouldn't you still agree that there are people who will have a hard time appreciating music that employs tools they find unappealing. My friend doesn't care much for the typical death and black metal tremolo picking, blastbeats and groweled vocals, someone else has a hard time listening high male vocals or fantasy lyrics "no matter what". And in general listeners are nowadays going more and more for a certain niche sound. They are fans of a subgenre or worse, a sub-subgenre! This I find a bit odd as I've always been pretty open for the variety of Heavy Metal. That said I don't care about "groove metal riffing" to the point that even if I learn to appreciate what the band is doing/achieving the pure sonics will probably just bore me.

  10. I detested most of the groove metal I've listened to, but then Confessor have a lot of groove influence on their best record, also Orphaned Land probably loved Pantera... Rosicrucian put out an absolutely stunning half-thrash record... there's exceptions to most generalizations.

    I'm fascinated by a person who listens to Heavy Metal but can't take high vocals or fantasy lyrics or growling or whatever. How does that work? It's like not liking the color red in a painting. Do they go in a murderous rage every time they hear a wailing scream or the drummer goes exactly over 200 bpm? I find taste weird and fascinating.

    I'm not saying your friend doesn't exist, Nekromantis. I'm just really skeptical as to his real motivations for his positions on what types of metal he likes and why. Perhaps he could read this piece and the resultant conversation and write in with his own experiences!

  11. I'm still not sure what to think about the "newer" Confessor but I love Orphaned Land's El Nora Alila and Mabool so you got me there though there is a lot more going on with those albums than groovy half-thrash pantera riffing though. in those albums. Also I don't know why but most groove metal bands I've heard had very annoying vocalists. I don't know if it's the chest-bumping machopretend or what but I don't like it.

    I'm fascinated by a person who listens to Heavy Metal but can't take high vocals or fantasy lyrics or growling or whatever. How does that work? It's like not liking the color red in a painting. "

    Well it at least seems there's quite a bunch "no clean/high/growled/whatever vocals" people on internet these days. I can only speculate the reasoning behind this. One could be that these people are still pretty new to Heavy Metal but I know it's not always the case. Pretty recently I read a youtube comment on some Queensrÿche (!) song that said "Cool song but I don't like the clean vocals".

    "I'm not saying your friend doesn't exist, Nekromantis. I'm just really skeptical as to his real motivations for his positions on what types of metal he likes and why."

    It's very possible that I've understood him wrong as I've hesitated to discuss these things in depth because I don't want to come off as.. you know.. metal inquisitor or something. But I will ask him about it and we'll see what he has to say.

  12. Worth a try!

    Thanks for the dialogue :)