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.


  1. Wow, this is an interesting post. I have some things to say. Let's start with the simple stuff...

    I knew a guy in high school who was astonished that I liked Metallica but not Tool. He seemed honestly incapable of understanding how it was possible to like one but not the other. "They're both in the same section at the music store!" he said. I imagine this guy was probably both music deaf and musically illiterate, and I'm pretty sure he listened to rock music and its derivatives for the sole reason that they were rock.

    On the other hand, I knew some other guys who were equally astonished that I liked both Metallica and the Beatles. They seemed to think this was the most absurd contradiction ever in the history of pop culture. To be fair, these guys were mostly fans of rap, hip hop, etc, so I'm not sure how important this is, but I had a really hard time trying to convince them that it's reasonable to find enjoyment in two different things, even if they're very, very different.


    As for myself, uuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm... I guess it's complicated, and I don't completely understand how I listen to music, but here goes anyway...

    At one point, I was kind of a hybrid between technique-nerd and composition-nerd, and as I grew up I gravitated more towards the composition side of things. I mean, I can appreciate a really well played solo as much as the next guy, but I've reached the point where Petrucci's whole "if it has thirty-secondth triplets at 160 BPM, it's a good solo" thing just makes him seem like a clown.

    I look for distinct character. If a piece of music has something interesting in it that serves to shine light on the artist's voice, then I tend to enjoy it more. I enjoyed your post about Atrox's Contentum, and I checked it out. This is a good example of what I'm talking about here. Having said that, that's certainly not the only thing that I want from music, and it's certainly not absolutely necessary in all cases.

    I like harmonic progression, and I appreciate when a Heavy Metal artist tries (sometimes successfully) to put something in their music that's more than just chug-chug-chug (which I can also appreciate in its own way). On the other hand, sometimes when they try to do honest-to-goodness harmony, it ends up sounding derivative. I'm talking about your typical symphonic metal with little synth violin flourishes, etc. Are there metal bands that actually try to do something original with an orchestra? This is not rhetorical. I want to know.

    Having said all of that, these days I'm in a mode of listening where I'm mostly interested in exploring what else metal has to offer me besides what I already know. So I'm trying to listen for whatever positives are present in things I'm not especially familiar with.


    I wonder what the demographics are like with respect to Heavy Metal artists. That is, I wonder how the artists tend to listen.


    Finally, I'm curious about how you came up with these types. Myself, I never listen to heavy metal in another person's company, so I never observe how others listen. This isn't intentional. I'm just not very social. So I wonder about how you developed your ideas. Do you spend a lot of time observing other metalheads? How much of what you say here is speculative?

  2. I remember at one point in my life that I refused to see any common ground between molten steel and the Beatles. I don't remember what my reasoning was, I can't conjure that stuff up anymore. I think I didn't want Heavy Metal to be 'rock n' roll' because the latter seemed completely safe? Hard to tell.

    There isn't much symphonic metal that I can wholeheartedly recommend, really. Emperor did something special with their second album, if you're willing to go there. Limbonic Art, also. Hm... good symphonic metal. Tough call. Perhaps someone will illuminate us in the comment space.

    I also wonder how artists tend to listen. I find it improbable that metal artists are actually music deaf. I think they 'Listen to Deconstruct'. As in, they hear the song and they break down how it's made and approximate the act of coming up with the arrangement themselves. This is probably how music producers listen to music most of the time too, and it might be a very well-paid skill to develop if you can Listen to Deconstruct and also Listen to Critique at the same time.

    I came up with these types through pure speculation, obviously. No one person would admit to an unflattering description of how they listen to music. Everyone says that music is profoundly important to them for one reason or another. I'm drawing from psychological tells that they're misrepresenting themselves. Like I said, how do we account for this person, all dressed in black and pale in moonlight, totally gothic-ed out, not being able to listen to the music they put on for a whole song's length? That they have to skip from this song to that song all the time? And how do we account for the record collector nerd that praises x obscure danish demo to the skies and you listen to it and it's amazing and also praises other obscure italian demo y and you listen to it and it's pure garbage?

    I came up with these types to explain what I see around me, I'm not trying to pressure what I see around me in these molds. Which is why I'm open to more categories and mixed versions of them.

  3. I think most metalheads who have been listening to this music for longer than few years can find a little bit of theirself in most of these "listener types". Me included. Even in the aspergerish type and I am very emotional and romantic nature I think and most people who know me well would agree.

    "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."

    I like this kind of nerding and listing to some degree but I guess I also can go on for hours about how this or that affects me on the more emotional level.

  4. It's a very interesting cultural phenomenon when people find themselves in the definition of Asperger's Syndrome. Usually it's the underpriviledged that are trying to find themselves in the 'normals' and here's it is reversed. I've seen people identify with the Asperger view on life when they're not in any way autistic and they've been from all walks of life, artists, performers, even a therapist. Obviously if you can go on and on on how things affect you emotionally AND you can also intuit how other people might feel in various situations, you're not autistic.

    I guess AS was a huge missing piece in how the human race understands its psychological range. It's not an accident that the recent (relatively) inclusion of 'asexual' in the broadened spectrum of sexual self-identification has similarily fit as a missing piece of a puzzle. As outside, so inside. Social norms and sexual norms mirror.

    With all that comes the problem of throwing in with real AS sufferers by equating whatever minor social disfunction we had as teenagers with their much more significant issue. But that'll even out, eventually. Not that I'm accusing you of doing this, btw, I'm just musing on a topic that I find very interesting.

  5. Hooks = hedonistic
    Atmosphere = semiotic
    Technique = formalistic
    Composition = aesthetic

    Useful typology, though even more useful to establish some of the (hierarchical?) relations between these terms:

    Atmosphere = music as 'meaningful' but only at semiotic level, i.e. of cultural capital/exchange, by virtue of place in exchange-system; no intrinsic value, thus interchangeable. Most 'extreme' metal and its audience.

    Composition = meaningful relation (or 'composition') of hedonistic-material, technical-formal and narrowly semiotic elements. Meaning in widest, fullest sense. Intrinsic value discovered through direct experience.

    PS: 70s rock & classic/doom metal listener.

  6. Well that's easly the most condensed usefulness in a single comment on this blog so far. Stay a while, Gespenst. Stay forever.

    I am unclear on how Atmospheric listening is meaningful only on a semiotic level. I think there are aesthetic considerations there. Your claim makes a tidy sort of sense that I've trained myself to be immediately sceptical about. But that's the problem with taxinomy.

    There is also something to be said on the psychosexual charges of Technique listening, where it isn't the formalism that excites, but the blunt force of many notes, the virility of speed and the musculinity of linearity.

    Your claim on the achievements of composition are to me dubious. They are similar to positions by Schopenhauer on that composition expresses foremost itself and not any one particular story but I am still debating internally if that's the last word on how that whole thing works. There are cases where I have listened to great compositions by bands (Emperor come to mind) where I have been excited to follow the music along but I have not been left with an impression that the excercise has summoned a 'thing in itself'. There are gaps between composition-as-it-is-conveyed and composition-as-it-is-recieved-by-me where I think aesthetic predisposition ('taste', whatever that is) comes into play, still.

    Anyone that listens to HM for a long time ends up mainly in the '70s and early '80s, I think. I have a few years left in me trying to understand what the hell it was that was happening in the '90s, I think.

    1. Well that's easly the most condensed usefulness in a single comment on this blog so far.
      I couldn't have applied my categories to your types without having been woken from my dogmatic metal slumbers by your inspiring blog, so all credit to you.

      I am unclear on how Atmospheric listening is meaningful only on a semiotic level. I think there are aesthetic considerations there.
      The associations I have made weren't meant as exclusive. Of course atmospheric listening isn't geared only toward semiosis, but it is to that aspect which the atmospheric listener mostly attends. (More aestheticizing than aesthetic: the aesthetic hollowed out and turned into mere 'appearance'). Hooks are figurative, hence representational, and therefore carry meaning. And technique, like you say, has its somatic and material elements.

      Your claim on the achievements of composition are to me dubious. They are similar to positions by Schopenhauer on that composition expresses foremost itself and not any one particular story.
      I'd never thought about composition in terms of the particular argument you mention, yet it intuitively strikes me as correct. You are right perhaps about the achievements of composition as such, but less so I think concerning the fruits of 'compositional' listening. (Interesting how easily we slide between object and subject here). To be sure, your description of your own experience confirms both my association of compositional listening with the aesthetic (attentiveness to how various aspects come together, as regulated by a projected synthetic whole; awareness of 'gaps' and consequent critical judgement), and my view of you as a compositional listener. That said, we are all always falling into the idleness of music journalism, of the received wisdom of metal-lore, and of our own taste. Some music, through its incapacity to support compositional listening, specifically encourages and 'rewards' the idle approach.

      Anyone that listens to HM for a long time ends up mainly in the '70s and early '80s, I think.
      Is it not both strange and wonderful that the oldest and therefore most handed-down music also has the greatest capacity for prompting direct experience? The relevance of Schopenhauer's argument now becomes clear.

  7. If I've been of any help I am happy.

    You are right, you didn't say the categories were exclusive. Although I made no effort to hide my own biases in the *description* of the categories I suggested above, I am more reluctant towards putting the value judgements themselves within the segregations. But that's something I thought you had done, not something you really did, so alright.

    Also correct that the confusion on the other matter is related to a constant back and forth on my part from subject to object. That is the whole blog, really. About metal music and about my Heavy Metal. I endlessly test this dynamic.

    I have many thoughts on why a record from 1983 can feel so relevant and joyous to me now when I am 28, given that I have started in Heavy Metal with music much more ambitious, well-played, sometimes more composed and better sounding -

    oh, I just realized. There's a minor category of people that listen to Heavy Metal for Engineering & Production. They refuse to listen to records where the 'snare sounds off' or the guitar distortion isn't crunchy enough. A most curious, Platoist breed. Related to Listening for Atmosphere, but not exactly the same.

    Anyway, I was saying, it's so curious that a record lacking in all these graces of its successors can now capture me much more than the music I sometimes grew up with. It's a valuable strike against nostalgia, and also a suggestion that there is something more to a music that doesn't know itself yet. Doesn't know its name, doesn't yet know its future, has no real past. Music that is happening right now.

    Can Heavy Metal ever enjoy a revitalization such as this? Can it subtly morph into another_thing that at that moment doesn't yet know what it is, has no real past and is making strange movements that will resonate 50 years from now as clearly and vibrantly as ever? I think hipsters of all stripes are searching for that 'happening' feeling to the point where their music (music made by hipsters) suffers greatly from knowingness - the knowledge that it's trying to happen. It stops it from happening. Perhaps the culture itself is too knowing to allow any new rock and roll type movements to purely appear and consolidate by accident into something enduring and monumental. Perhaps metal music was the last thing guitars will do that has a name that people will still need to use 100 years from now.

    Also: who are you? What's your story? Indulge me if you want.

  8. "I have many thoughts on why a record from 1983 can feel so relevant and joyous to me now when I am 28, given that I have started in Heavy Metal with music much more ambitious, well-played, sometimes more composed and better sounding"

    Why don't you make a individual post about this? I think there are many things to be said about honesty and innocense of early 80s heavy metal which I guess are part of the magic that makes it surpass some of the later, more sophisticated offerings of the genre. I can also provide a countering view to the discussion because my situtation is almost the opposite. I got into heavy metal with late 70's to mid 80's stuff but these days I spend more time with mid 80's to early 90's metal for various reasons.

  9. Yes, perhaps I should, but it's best discussed in the form of a record-specific piece.

  10. Surely some people listen to certain bands for primarily nostalgic reasons?

  11. Surely they do. And they should be further categorized into two subcategories. Those that listen to their original sources of nostalgia, for example Iron Maiden in order to recapture the connected feelings and those that listen to effective remakes of the same atmosphere, for example, Iron Maiden clones. There the point subconsciously would be to look at the attached tender feelings from variably different angles, ever so slightly, to see how the light catches them. From a kaledroscopic aggregate there must appear a picture of childhood.

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  13. Glad to hear you've been creative. Welcome to the blog-o-sphere, as it were, also.

  14. Fascinating post, and on point.

    I too consider myself a mash of all the aformentioned types; perhaps a better metaphor for me would be:


    It's terribly simplistic, yes, but when artists, songs, etc contain all four magic is made. I find most modern metal terribly lacking these days, predictably boring and so soul suckingly awful and I too would look forward to a future post on why old metal elicits a strong response as opposed to modern metal. In fact, I don't think I listen to music much older than 1980 for the most part, and the last records that grabbed me recently was OM's "Advaitic Songs", Orannsi Pazuzu's "Kosmonument" and Virus's "The Agent Shapes the Desert". Music with hooks, bits of menace, open spaces and emotional, romantic chops. Challenging, progressive, expressive and spiritual.

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  16. Helm, i feel, yngwie j. malmsteen has a hell of a listening revelation starting at 8:18 through 9:30 on this great video share:

    btw, today's date is 8:18

  17. 1) i enjoyed listening to Yngwie J. Malmsteen basically say if it sounds good to you, it's good.

    2) lyrical meaningfulness has been the biggest factor in my music listening experience in recent years. i may have a subject in mind, in particular, a word, and go to the POS pantheon for artists' expressions on the matter. most of my HM experience was engraved by work outside POS so they tend to be particularly revealing and valuable, to me. wording choices mixing with the musical forms mixing with thirsting streams of my thoughts have coexisted for quite a few interesting moments.

  18. 2)) listening without the headphones.

    what i mean is, my imagination/recall can summon HM, and more.

    (this is quiet a phenomena, for me. i'd not attempt to express this as i measure i am a shallow swimmer in the sea of thought, that is, based on what a read from POS comments and author expressions, i have little understanding of philosophy, grammar, music theory etc... yet some desire to participate continues to exist.)

    Fate's, The Apparition, appears at will in my head(thoughts) but the lyrics aren't memorized(apparent). i've read them before but don't recall them. i hear the guitars, vocals, drums, in tempos, in key, i think. how can this be? i'm not plugged in? yet i recall the double blade ax on the album cover of a metal blade compilation. i'm visualizing(vaguely) the artifact of my inaugural contact with the song. visualizing is connected to listening to HM, isn't it?

    my more indelible recall is a floating black material loosed from a freighter truck's container which approached my car as i drove to work many moons ago. if i consider it slowly, detailing as much as possible about the event, through my senses at that time, at this time, the record in memory, is rich. if i read the lyrics, i get more from this exchange.