Monday, January 3, 2011

Heavy Metal Spectacle

Metalheads are easily impressed. The hook of Heavy Metal music on the surface level is the same spectacle that captures the attention of fans of other pop music, i.e. what the artist is wearing in their photo-shoot, what big statement they made in the press, how catchy the first melody of the first song on the record is, so on. On that level, how hard, fast and/or technical a metal band plays serves the same purpose as the new outfit worn by Lady Gaga. Different language, same argumentation.

Most Heavy Metal listeners aren't musicians themselves. I suspect an unquantifiable section of them are failed guitarists, but even so, failed for a reason. It's depressing to see how bands with little meaning to their music are often revered by metalheads as not only important but more important than pop music because they employ technical trickery that impresses the musical illiterate. Nearly everything metal music does on an aesthetic and compositional level is a more technically dense version of what more tame popular music does, only with the conceit that the added chops and technicality can only exist because they serve a higher purpose. Like many sophist arguments, underneath the hood this is a circular argument "Of course my metal is profound, otherwise why would it be so complicated sounding?"

Density doesn't equal complexity and complexity doesn't equal nuance. The more tech-heavy modern metal gets, the less it seems to have anything to say emotionally and the palette in which to say it becomes more and more monochromatic via dictates of loudness wars sound design. Instead modern metal is increasingly base, the basic idea is how most to augment the linear sexuality of the riff, the mechanised sadist thrust of sixteenths over double-bass. Slow metal, fast metal, noodly wanky prog metal and anthemic chorus-laden pop metal, all with the same values, all peaking over the red, all loudly cracking speakers in a simple triangle room. Speaker left, lonely guy, speaker right.


When humans are trying to describe reality, they do so in simple terms, simple stories that make sense, semi-realist fantasies that capture the generalized shape of something deeply confusing to make it safe, to domesticate it. Conspiracy theorists look at geopolitical happenings that are so infinitely complex to unravel and they offer simpler, safer constructs to explain away that feeling of dread inherent in gazing inside an endless machine: the Jews did it. The New World Order. I don't blame conspiracy theorists for reaching that caveman-structural end to their paranoia because 'simple solutions' is an ancient reflex. It got us where we are. It is inherent in the belief in basic language. In the adoration of grammar, as Nietzsche said, we may find the strongest suggestion that the populous is not finished with the concept of God.

Humans like simple things. If you can't explain it simply, it doesn't exist. The curious thing with the fantasies of these simple solutions is that once humans present them in the culture and if they achieve traction and enter the public subconscious, they inform the endlessly complex structures on which they are commenting on. This means that although the Jews are not controlling the world, after widespread conspiracy theorizing as to the opposite, there absolutely must be now influential (or self-considered influential) Jews that are stepping up to that fantasy, they're trying to control the world. They're trying to turn a fantasy into reality because a fantasy is simpler and safer. This effect is the same on all levels. Take how human beings explain away the complex interpersonal interactions between lovers in the model of 'women are from Venus, men from Mars'. Ludicrous as such dualism may be, after it has penetrated the public subconscious, there are now men who are trying to be extra Martian and women so unbearably and artificially pink that it becomes an aggressive, sadistic tactic. God does not exist but we have invented him and look how people flock to deities of all stripes and colors, they cannot all be right, can they? What if they're all right in the simple terms of their simple life story, though? What if the lowest-entry personality cult member is achieving the exact same grace that high-echelon Christians are? What if the biggest pull to simple structure is psychic safety?

Likewise, Heavy Metal music, a complex cultural and artistic phenomenon, has suffered decades of attempted simplifying, its rough edges sanded down for public consumption. Every new metal genre name is a wound in this sense, it is a further codification of what needs no more. And exactly because these tags and genre codes gain traction with the consumer public, this feeds back into the making of metal music on the primary level. Musicians are not trying to make unpredictable, chaotic art that may solidify as it itself desires, they're trying to make "thrash metal". "True death metal". "Orthodox black metal". They're channeling nothing more profound than their own surface expectations. They know beforehand what this music is supposed to be and they're trying to fit their inspiration in a predetermined mold. Modern heavy metal, as all modern art suffers from these expectations-coming-to-life. The more mainstream the metal strand, the clearer the ravages of this feedback loop: it has become what was infuriatingly the cliché outsider view of it was for decades: obnoxiously loud without nuance, subtlety and higher meaning. Deafening, pummeling walls of distortion that decorate either low angst or desire for fucking. It wasn't always so, but once humanity has fantasized a simple solution, outliers will subconsciously feel the pull to cater to the expectation, to belong, to exist.


Humans like simple solutions. They like structure and order. These things are safe, they mean we will not die today. But safety isn't exciting. Exactly because we know we will die someday, we also have a deep pull towards senselessness and chaos. The killing reverie of art is a homage to lust and death. We try to hide it and we pretty it up when we can no longer hide it but a very basic reason we celebrate art-making and art-experiencing is because it is startling to remember we know nothing and we're soon going to be not of this world. Nearing the gates of unfathomable delirium, from the first time ancient man banged a piece of wood and danced around a fire so high it could touch the black stars. Now that's exciting.

Art achieves holistic grace in that it is magic that tempers the forces of life but stands in awe against the uncontrollable chaos of death. It must grace both Apollo and Dionysus, otherwise it's not very good as art. If it's too structured, it becomes a (mainstream) video-game: put in specific data, get other, fancier but completely systematic data at the output, predictable as is may be pleasing. Most of modern metal is a video-game in this way: the consumer knows exactly what they're going to get for what they put in before they press play. Of course, humans cannot help being humans and even in the most predictable modernized vacuous metal records there are elements of chaotic death-reverie, startling jolts, no matter how brief and underachieved that remind of that other aspect of art, the dark reflection in the mirror pool: for you to live you must die a little.

Metalheads are easily impressed and they're self-conscious and of low self-esteem. They celebrate the tamest, the most video-game aspects of their beloved music in public conversation. How hard this band plays, how ripping the sound design of this band is, how many beats per minute this drummer can achieve, how many notes in this solo, how much this song sounds like that other song. Or even most insidiously, how sad this song makes one, how deep this band is, how far out the atmosphere of this record. Yet these things are expected, they knew they'd get that before they pressed play. What they got was pleasing melody, conservative, safe structure and a relatively good time. Metalheads often dress up those experiences common with any popular music fan throughout the world as something higher, more important, hidden behind the Heavy Metal ghost, the power of hi-gain distortion and double bass.

If someone is getting more out of their art than this, they must be startled, fundamentally shocked by it, even years after first contact. They struggle with words when called to explain the deepest core of what art does to them and most importantly, when pressed to find these words, they non-standard, they weird, like poetry perhaps. They moved to introspection because of art, they alter themselves in their ingress?

For most music listeners around the world there just isn't enough time and inclination for this. Metalheads aren't any different. The spectacle of art is a tyranny of safety. Much of our identity is defined by what we consume and we are listlessly reminded that our prime directive is to seek comfort and safety in things and services. The information of this way of life on art is captured on our syntax and grammar, subject, verb, object, a God a desire and a product.

Perhaps you've noticed that although I'm talking about music which means the most for me on this blog, I don't reach for hyperbole often. Aside from considerations of taste that inform my writing approach, there's a deeper reason for this. Frenzied praise common to most music reviews (and at the altera pars, cynical deconstruction) I believe are reflexes of self-obfuscation. They focus the reading on the supposedly valiant feats/grave evils the music is impacting on its own, cutting out the perception and life experience of the writer. This is the way to market to one and all. What I am trying to do with this blog is not to domesticate the art in this way, it is to connect disparate personal experiences, aesthetic charges semi-inherent in the form and reaching theory into a whole that is more exuberant and startling in its chaotic non-clarity than any riff or song on itself can accomplish in its disconnected safety. There's nothing to be impressed with in the guts of metal as a music, just melodies harmonies and rhythm like all before and after it and I tire of those that try so far to convince otherwise, to build a simple but grandiose metal machine to hide their persons behind. The parts of a music, the melodies, harmonies and rhythm are put together by people and they who listen to it are people too. To understand the true beauty of art in all its horror and grace is to understand them foremost.

10 comments:

  1. You've made a number of points there, but one I find hard to accept is the deconstructive aspect of your argument; that metal (little-m) is fundamentally composed of melodies, harmonies and rhythms like all other forms of music. Of course this is technically true, but it misses a side-effect that is so important it becomes almost the main event.

    My kids have a small toy truck that, when you press its buttons, plays Queen's 'We Will Rock You'. The guitar tone that comes out of this tiny plastic kid's plaything is capable of stopping me in my tracks (although I've never liked Queen) and forcing me to listen to the magical properties of waveforms corrupting and intermingling as the distortion takes center stage. There is something happening here that cannot be reduced by dry analysis, there is a property of this particular sound that makes the human sense power and energy that are not actually carried by the simple movement of the air.

    The first people to hear this sound in the early days of rock'n'roll knew there was something to fear in this sound, and it was duly denounced as the devil's music. Rock'n'roll may have birthed this phenomenon, but metal (little-m) has been, to a certain extent, the continued study into how to harness and extrapolate this phenomenon, for fun and profit.

    Percussion works in a similar way. Imagine you have two pedals on a bass drum, and you alternate striking, left and right, about a second apart. There is not a lot of magic in this, but if you speed up the tempo you will eventually reach a speed where the same simple pattern suddenly becomes a vital force you feel in your chest, which the reductionist view cannot see. This phenomenon, and its application is another preoccupation of metal practitioners.

    So, in my view, metal is not 'more important' than pop music; instead it uses different tools to achieve its somewhat different aims. These tools exact a cost, too - crank up the distortion and harmony loses relevance, violent percussion seems to conflict with rhythmic nuances.

    I would defend technicality at this point, too, except that I'm among the legion of failed guitarists, and the ground shifts under me :)

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  2. "Personalizing" music crit is a big no-no, bro. I like your term "domestication" more. It smells like meat pie and I can hear the television in the other room.

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  3. Matt, I appreciate what you're saying. I too believe that metal music has more going for it than melodies and harmonies and rhythm (which is the point of the blog) but I underline these things through personal experience, not pseudo-objective qualities of sound. That was my point in this matter, that metalhead pretend their music is better on some pseudo-objective level, because 'complicated music is complicated for a reason' and 'loud music must be loud for a reason'.

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  4. "If you can't explain it simply, it doesn't exist."

    If you can't explain it simply, you do not fully grasp the issue at hand (or if you prefer, you are "pseudo-grasping" it).

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  5. A: if you can present a complex issue in simple terms then you're rhetorically gifted and you'll go far in life in one of the fields where this skill is needed. How simple or complicated an explanation of an issue is, I believe, has very little (nothing?) to do with the epistemological weight of the explanation. I do not see the causal link between the two parts of your statement, the nature of knowledge is such that humanity is always deliberating on something aside from reality.

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  6. Simple or complicated is not really the issue, I think. The issue has more to do with intelligibility. If you can't explain something in a way that other intelligent folks can come to understand, regardless of whether what is being said is complicated or simple, then that's evidence that you don't really understand what you're saying either. I've found that if somebody can't express some idea clearly, even if they're trying to communicate a complex idea or argument, then I have to wonder whether the person saying the thing really has a clear idea of what they're saying. I have run into this sort of thing with people at anus.com for instance. I study philosophy at the graduate level, so this is a very real issue for me. I have sometimes had the feeling after reading certain texts that certain authors engage in obfuscation because the ideas being expressed are either not very well thought out or the author wants to appear to be saying something deeper than what they actually have to say.

    I can say from personal experience with writing about highly abstract subject matter that when I've managed to wrap my head around an issue, I can find a way to explain it to others. If I can't, I really doubt that I've understood the issue adequately.

    So this is not really an issue about the epistemic status of whatever idea is being put forward. It's more to do with whether the person putting forth the idea is thinking clearly. However, as a practical matter, if I'm presented with an unfamiliar idea or explanation, and the person presenting it does not explain it in an intelligible way and I cannot find a way to make it intelligible to myself, then I have some reason to dismiss it until I find somebody who can communicate it clearly. Otherwise I have to regard it as nonsense.

    I think this is probably a pretty complicated issue, though. I think a lot can be said about this sort of thing. For one thing, who cares whether I can't understand some particular idea, even if I am an intelligent individual? What does that really show? After all, plenty of supposedly intelligent individuals claim to understand what guys like Derrida and Heidegger have to say, but I can't make heads or tails of most of what those guys say (at least I couldn't the last time I tried to read them, which was years ago). But I think generally if an explanation can't be brought "down to Earth" in some sense, then that is some kind of evidence, prima facie, that the person presenting the explanation doesn't quite know what they're talking about.

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  7. "If you can't explain something in a way that other intelligent folks can come to understand, regardless of whether what is being said is complicated or simple, then that's evidence that you don't really understand what you're saying either."

    Intelligence doesn't have too much to do with it, in my opinion.

    I think people, when they put forth an increasingly complex position, don't understand exactly what they said (they don't understand the implications of what they said even more), they didn't say exactly what they were compelled to explain. It's impossible to have a 'closed system' lingually, where you can say something very complex without regard to its implications.

    A game of go, every move on the board informs everything else that happens on the board. After a few moves, it becomes almost crippling trying to make informed judgements on your next move, then you go by intuition. Same in discussion, concepts come intuitively and they're tested right then and there and sometimes they inspire and forward the conversation, sometimes they're red herrings and sometimes they push the position towards appearing nonsensical. I don't think there's too much an individual can control in this inspiration/testing process.

    There's layers of inherent obfuscation in any communication. Let's say you ask me a question and I reply with something:

    1. you don't know why you're asking the question
    2. you don't understand what you asked me exactly
    3. I didn't understand what you asked me
    4. you didn't understand what I replied with
    5. I didn't understand what I replied with
    6. I don't understand why I wanted to say it in the first place

    The surface simplicity of the thing said can make some of these concerns less pressing. Let's say you asked me what day it is today and I answered 'it's Sunday'. You understood me clearly, right? The purpose of the communication seems to be achieved. But what if I live at a different time zone to you and I just switched days here and you're living in my past? Also 2. what exactly is a 'day' to me, I sure used our common language but why does a day start at 12:00 and not 12:01 (silly limit set issue) for example? I use a language and I don't understand it exactly myself either. Finally 3. what if you didn't really want to know what day it was but instead were using the question as a device to get to know me or whatever. Also, did I give you what is a correct answer to me in order to build a trust between us? Why didn't I deflect such a basic question with irony or outright ignore you? What's in it for me, what for you? There's a strange place where psychology and epistemology intersect.

    The example I presented is kinda wonky but it'll do. It's so basic, simple, then consider the noise ratio in a more complicated multi-part discussion. Let's say someone asks me about God.

    "I have run into this sort of thing with people at anus.com for instance."

    I have no experience with their forums. I believe the main writer of the articles and blog posts there (though I realize there's many anus drones that might or might not be sharing duties) seems to me to have become more lucid in his argumentation over the years. I can follow much of what he says to the point where I get something useful from them at least. I have never engaged in any dialogue with the anus.com guy, though one of his drones once called me unflattering names on the internet at some forum, I believe they try to engage in philosopical dialogue but when it strikes them they switch over to using philosophy as a hook for victims to troll. What urges them to make the switch from one mode to the other I don't know.

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  8. "I study philosophy at the graduate level, so this is a very real issue for me."

    What are you doing in a blog like this, then? You'll be sure to learn much more that is relevant to artistry and life by reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche themselves than by reading my posts.

    Wait, you're here for the communication, right? Faulty, sometimes opaque and confusing interpersonal communication.
    "I have sometimes had the feeling after reading certain texts that certain authors engage in obfuscation because the ideas being expressed are either not very well thought out or the author wants to appear to be saying something deeper than what they actually have to say."

    I don't know... it's perhaps most telling about my intellectual capacity that when I read one of the major philosophers, I usually find so much food for thought in fifty pages that I have to stop and explore the potential of that content for months before I continue. I have to struggle to reach something useful sometimes with the more complicated texts, but when I do reach it, it's useful for a long period of time.

    But then again, I generally do not read much post-modern theory & I especially read zero academically distributed texts, which I am certain is mandatory in your field.

    "I can say from personal experience with writing about highly abstract subject matter that when I've managed to wrap my head around an issue, I can find a way to explain it to others. If I can't, I really doubt that I've understood the issue adequately. "

    That may be your personal experience. Writing for me is a more poetic impulse. I am struck with strong intuitions which cry out to be connected to a larger semiotic field. When I write about these intuitions they become clearer as I write. Sometimes the end text surprises me by giving different light to the initial intuition, sometimes the text disappoints me because it doesn't cohere. I post it all because validity is not my concern, inspiration is. It surprises me when someone reads something I say and asks "where is the evidence?" or says that I am "wrong".

    As an aside, there's this archetype of the human being who is trying to replace aspects of their psyche they find unflattering (intuition, instinct, irrational desire) with logic, logic, logic. They're very concerned with Truth. I think the explanation of this behavior is psychological, and it is fascinating to me. I do not think engaging with that archetype on the battlefield of 'truth versus falseness' is as interesting. They sharpen their weapons of Truth and they're ready to trounce you with hard data and historical analysis, but the elephant in the room is *why* they want to trounce you to begin with.

    "So this is not really an issue about the epistemic status of whatever idea is being put forward. It's more to do with whether the person putting forth the idea is thinking clearly."

    I contest the value judgment implied in 'thinking clearly' for being based on your empirical data.

    I do not even understand what the words 'thinking clearly' mean in this context. Do you mean when one has taken a complex issue and closed outside certain implications so that they may look at a selection of the form individually? Is that clarity?

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  9. "However, as a practical matter, if I'm presented with an unfamiliar idea or explanation, and the person presenting it does not explain it in an intelligible way and I cannot find a way to make it intelligible to myself, then I have some reason to dismiss it until I find somebody who can communicate it clearly. Otherwise I have to regard it as nonsense. "

    That's fine, I am not one to suggest that you should try to make sense from any nonsense/potential sense posted on anus.com (or here, or the internet in general) because there's just too much of it. There's a reason big name philosophers are the go to place for density of inspiration (or clarity of argumentation, for you perhaps).

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