Monday, August 6, 2012

How people listen to Heavy Metal

Oh let me count the ways.

Listening for hooks

This is the standard mode of listening for most. Heavy Metal started as a pop music genre. The benefit of fishing for hooks is that the Heavy Metal that delivers is inherently... well... fun. Hooks are exciting, they make a piece of music vibrant and they urge the listener to revisit. Songs with a single solid hook even sometimes become timeless. More often they become audio evil, inflicting through pavlovian means the illness of 'humming that stupid melody' on unsuspecting listeners.

There are drawbacks to listening to music for the hooks. Chief amongst them that those that do so usually listen *only* for hooks. If there are hooks, they like it. This may come as a shock to those less musically inclined in the readership, but coming up with a solid hook is not rocket science (coming up with thirty different ones takes a certain kind of genious, though). There is a lot of interchangable pop music that relies solely on the ear worm, nothing else aesthetically or lyrically to recommend it. Heavy Metal moved away from being pop in this way exactly because it has an internal conceit of being 'meaningful music', for good or worse. There was a long time in the late '90s where what little metal music was still around was painfully hook-shy. We are seeing a return to melody and therefore to hooks, however.

Modern listeners find modern Heavy Metal (especially the more extreme type) to be either completely hookless and a jumbled mess of noise, or too packed with hooks to the point where one hook is hurting another. The song is over and like a sugar rush, what is left is a headache. Those that endure learn the songs eventually and can appreciate each hook on its own. Mainstream listeners stand a chance to be captured by modern metal music of the latter type, but there's little to no chance that the hookless noise variety will provide anything but a brief infatuation for them, if even that. There are those who like listening to noise, however.

Favourite genres: power metal, traditional metal, AOR

Listening for Atmosphere

Talking about listening to noise. A smaller section of listeners are not drawn to music because it has charming pop hooks or even if it does, they do not stay because of the hooks. They're interested in the aesthetic presentation and formalist aspects of the whole. They more 'see' the music than listen to it. They're the types that cannot tell you which the good songs are in  Joy Division's "Closer" album, but they can tell you about the singer's tragic death, or where the record cover comes from. A peculiar type of 'bad taste hidden inside good taste', it's a very unsettling experience to listen to music next to them (if you have any sort of empathy) when you might realize they're not actually listening to it at all. They're waiting. Is it a surprise they're the worst offenders when it comes to skipping on a song in the middle?

Interestingly enough, often they actually scoff at hooks and exclaim they hurt the experience. “What do they think they are? A rock band?”. Imagine listening to Heavy Metal as if it's some sort of avant garde experiment and you're not far off.

This type of listener that is drawn to Heavy Metal is not looking for riffs and double bass arranged in fanciful combinations per se, they're look for aural violence and the feelings of alienation and dejection that come with being submitted to such. A peculiar form of masochism, they'll often go on about how this record by that band is particularily opressive and how various elements of their presentation (musical and extramusical) contribute to this effect. Or they might go on and on about how they listen to this record while they fall asleep and what kind of dreams it gave them. If metal music was meant to be listened to while falling asleep, then it'd be considerably quieter!

The people that listen to metal thusly are usually either music deaf (which is not the same as musically illiterate) to the point where they're unable to even be captured by a hook or they're hipsters. Possibly both. Their tastes usually drift, and they get their fix elsewhere soon enough, always looking for a purer distillization of what are inherently vague atmospheres.

Or, perhaps most perversely, some of them are hardened scene veterans, usually record collectors for whom the said atmosphere doesn't come from jacket and lyric even, but from old, crusty, smelly jacket or a seventh generation tape dub of a french black metal demo where the now disceased singer had carved inverted crosses on the plastic. They will swear up and down they love the music most of all, but somehow all the artifacts they've surrounded themselves with warn of some other drive behind their actions.

Favourite genres: depressive black metal, drone, brutal death metal, druggy stoner doom, doom/death, obscure & cult metal

Listening for Flashy Technique 

A peculiarily widespread breed of metal fans that obsess over the linear density and/or complexity of the music. Almost always guitar or drum nerds (even if they don't play these instruments), they understand music microscopically. A tasteless record cover means nothing to them as long as the music inside is packed. They can appreciate a hook but they're not here for it, they're here for the arpeggios. They will endlessly defend a shredder's right to shred, exclaiming that the void of emotion that their opposition levels against their heroes is irrelevant as there are other graces to their favourite music. To the extent to which they are correct in this we would also be correct to assume that they suffer from what is becoming increasingly visible as a mild form of autism called Asperger's syndrome.

Anyone that has ever known a hardcore nerd may have known an 'aspie' as they're often called. Their desire for cataloguing and enumerating and typifying is related with their incapacity for empathy and emotional communication. They like things that can be put on a scale because they can reach dependable conclusions and trust their data. Metrics are safety. Metal nerds of this sort can easily by identified by that they're almost never *just* metal nerds. Usually a propensity for role playing games, video games or genre film come right along with the metal, and they're also discussed with equal attention paid to enumeration.

They have no problem listening to a band called "Prostitute Ovary Puncher" as long as the notes come like a warm shower. If there's something to recommend their approach to metal listening is that there truly is a point to 'more is more'. There are few experiences similar to listening to a certain Cryptopsy record at full blast while trying to follow the time changes and the drum fills at the same time. Information overload of this sort is useful training for a future that promises to be filterless.
Favourite genres: shrapnel records catalogue, 'prog metal', technical death metal

Listening for Composition

Eternally misunderstood to be the aforementioned shred geeks, those that come to Heavy Metal because they love a well-structured piece of music often have it hardest. Mostly because Heavy Metal is ambitious, but also quite dumb. This is not classical music, don't let them tell you otherwise. There aren't very many metal bands that can actually write a well considered composition. The difference to the above's love for linearity is that a lover of composition also appreciates and desires a degree of harmonic quality, some adventurousness in tonality. Sadly these are harder to come by.

Curiously, many listeners have it in their minds that they are of this sort but they're misunderstanding themselves because the music they present as exemplary, is not. Often extreme metal that is willfully obscure and is making occult promises about the wisdom hidden in the shadows is enthusiastically picked up by faux-composition nerds as the next great thing. Over the years the excitement fades and suddenly Portal or Deathspell Omega sound less like Stravinsky and more like mosquitoes amplified through a vacuum tube. A composition can't be all secrets, alas. Perhaps composition-nerd + music deafness = another sort of atmosphere nerd?

Favourite genres: classic metal, progressive metal, black metal

Hmm.. I'm sure there's more. Any suggestions? Also, what are you? I find myself to be a little bit of most but more strongly about hooks and composition, with some atmospheric desires usually aimed at non-metal music.