Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Music Do the Passions Most Enjoy Themselves

Let's take the line of thinking introduced in the 'They Say Rage is a Brief Madness' post further. Here are the main genres of metal music. Let's use our pop-psychological skills to understand why they came to be, why they're not interchangeable and which of them have bridges to others while others are mutually exclusive. Have you ever wondered why nobody really has tried happy flower hippy death metal or europower about being a weakling nobody that is going to cut their wrists?

A rough chronology:

'70s Heavy Metal

New Wave of British Heavy Metal

Doom Metal

Speed metal

Power Metal

Epic Metal

Thrash Metal

Death Metal

Progressive Metal

Black Metal

Post Metal

'70s Heavy Metal and NWOBHM go together because I've yet to meet a metalhead into one but not the other : I think the main pull of the original Heavy Metal phenomenon was surprisingly non-pathologic. Teenagers actively wanting to rebel against conservative forces that predefined their path. If that's a pathology then the world can go fuck itself. There's a beautiful naivety in that era of 'angry music' that I, for one, do not feel comfortable pathologising. This begs a question and in trying to find an answer this exercise is already useful: Could it be the case that new music trends become a vessel for pathology once they have been codified, monetized and regurgitated through popular culture? When you're looking for music to slit your wrists to, you go to a genre called 'suicidal black metal'. But if you were a weird kid back in 1991 in Oslo, it probably took guts and other sublimated qualities to enter into such a vague and unorthodox subculture. If it's easy to buy and take home alone, it's probably bad for you!

In this way, I do not think a kid in the '70s was expressing pathological emotions when they got into Judas Priest, but a fifty year old today still into Judas Priest might suffer from a number of things.

So let's talk about today's listeners of 'Classic metal', or 'traditional metal' or what have you. I think the main pull there is nostalgia, not in itself a pathological emotion but certainly tied to such. What once was can only be accessed through artifacts and so on. The more treacherous feeling I could attach to the oldies is that their appreciators have a 'holier than thou' attitude, often. But that's kind of mundane in Heavy Metal circles, where most sub-subcultures have that going.

The worrying sign I've noticed is a fetish for objects. Perhaps this is a Greek-obscure-metal thing, you international readers can verify, but does it feel, sometimes alarmingly so, that 'classic metal' listeners collect vinyl and patches and whatnot in the same way they could be collecting '80s sticker sets or cereal boxes? There seems to be no differentiation of value, it's just old stuff that made an impression. I've noticed this and I'm not sure what it means yet, but it's very distressing when Manowar and Thundercats are pretty much the same thing in the minds of increasingly balding metalheads.

Doom Metal: That's an easy one, isn't it? Depression, self-loathing, solitude. Nobody understands me and I want a girlfriend/boyfriend that wears black fishnet. If there's a saving grace in this genre (psychologically speaking) is that it so triumphantly declares that it is about these things that it ends up not being so much about them but about the triumphant declaration. There's too much power in Candlemass to get really morose to. For this genre to become truly maudlin it'd take an injection from death metal, that nihilistic, meat-is-meat psychosis discussed before. Then it starts to ring true, oh the sound of the knell, the pathetic stench of dying children! But again, as long as there are violent explosions of force it can't truly be music to slit your wrists to. Play The Cure's 'Pornography' and then listen to My Dying Bride. There's really a very significant difference.

It's fascinating that Doom metal has ties to both Epic Metal and to Death/black metal. The latter is mostly understandable, it's just a more romantic take on "Pain and suffering, but why?!". But Epic metal? It would help to note that people that listen to Epic Doom Metal proper very rarely listen to doom/death counterparts and vise versa. It's almost as if there's two different genres only coincidentially both named 'Doom Metal'. But is this really how it is? I do not think so.

Doom metal as we know it today is the reinterpretation of Black Sabbath, by Candlemass in their debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. And although that record self-identifies as, well, you can guess what, its first track is 'Solitude' which is positively morose. Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride would take that aspect of Candlemass and put some Slayer or Sodom in there, but it's not such a huge stretch once the influences have been identified.

I am still at some loss as to how actually sad the people who listen to doom metal are. I tend to project my own experiences as this genre can be said to be my 'home', more or less. This doesn't really reflect in my Master List, as there simply are not enough doom metal masterpieces out there. But those few records in the genre I'm into, I simply adore and always reference. So I tend to think that most doom metal listeners have followed a similar trajectory to my own. Perhaps I should leave the psychopathology of doom metal to someone else.

Speed Metal: if there ever was a nebulous genre of metal, this would be it. Not yet as robust as Power Metal, not as choppy and punkish as Thrash. Are there Speed metal enthusiasts out there, truly? I'd love to hear from you.

Listen, I've tried to fly the flag for Speed Metal. I think I know what it is and I can make at least two different cases that would be fairly convincing. But what does it say that I am almost 30 years old, I've listened to Heavy Metal for more than half my life and I have an encyclopedic knowledge of it and I'm still torn between two different narratives on what speed metal is? There's something weird going on there.

If there's a pathology here it probably has to do with those that want to appropriate this nebulous genre to their own ends, a la anus.com . I am hesitant to surrender fuckin' Exciter and Agent Steel to them, but perhaps that's not such a terrible loss to call these bands Thrash. Otherwise, the people into this stuff are usually also the same obscure metal guys I've addressed before.

Power Metal: in its europower incarnation I think there's little pathologic in there at all. We could make the case for arrested development, but truly, it's just happy pop music, sometimes genuinely uplifting. I can find no fault in this. It's not really Heavy Metal anymore, but that's a different class of argument. Go on, europower-lovers, keep listening to simple, bright, childish music! If you're over 20, I hope you have a sense of humor about yourselves, at least! I'm probably wrong. Check the comments section.

It can get darker if someone is really, really into this stuff along with role playing games, computer games, superhero comics, reddit and men's rights activism but there we would be branching off of in a broader 'psychopathology of the internet' and that is too daunting a swamp to wade into.

The US Power side of Power Metal is dominated by the syndromes common to obscure metal collectors and whatnot. A weird sense I get often from them is that they have a non-taste. They choose music based on extra-musical criteria, yet they sometimes land on a gem and can appreciate it as marginally different from their Medieval Steels and Killens but not by much. The more technical the US Power gets, the more it bridges into the delusions of grandeur common to progressive metal proper. We'll get to that later on.

Epic Metal: Here's where it gets ugly, though. Although tangentially connected to power, epic metal is not about speed and singalongs foremost. Epic metal can be slow or fast, pompous or savage, ethereal or blunt. Its core, defining characteristic is pathologic in itself. It thinks it's better than everything else. Avarice to the highest degree, worse than the excesses of progressive metal, its delusions of grandeur are this toxic because it doesn't have to qualify its claim to be better than anything else. Progressive metal goes 'listen to all these notes we're playing, this is hard, right? So we're better'. And black metal says 'listen to this romantic art, it strikes a real chord, doesn't it? So we're better.' But epic metal just says 'we're better than everyone else and if you don't agree then you're obviously not epic metal at heart'. Fan the sparks of will, be your own disciple!

Manowar have a lot to answer for. A band of meager talents, with about 10 amazing songs to their name, truly individual, for good or worse, have staked a territory in Heavy Metal that is unassailable by any outsider by virtue of being an outsider. There will never be a dialogue between epic metal and other genres, much like there is very little between epic metal fans and anyone else.

The toll for such avarice is high. With every decade, the epic metaller grows more despondent and frayed by the cognitive dissonance. If he's the best, then why does his belly grow this much with every beer? If he's the best, why does he fail to maintain a healthy relationship? If he's the best, why haven't Manowar put out a great album in the last 20 years? There are no answers, friend, there's only bad choices you have made!

Thrash metal: Well, there's a degree of delusion there. Thrash thinks it's 'grown-up' metal, but it's just dumber punk with more palm mutes. At least it has a dionysian core so some thrashers are having fun. The most physical of the genres of metal, it's connected with skating, moshing and being an adolescent. I guess arrested development here too. But I'd say thrash is pretty harmless and most of all a phase for most listeners. A thrasher in their fifties might truly be a sad sight, though.

Death metal and Black Metal we've covered before. A note on 'Suicidal Black Metal' though, as it's a startling Reality moment in heavy metal when they came up with that. ALL Heavy Metal demands holocaust, it is a cruel mistress. You must die to live forever. Is it surprising that the genre named 'Suicidal Black Metal' sounds exactly like the prelude of hysteria that culminates in self-harm? Keep it under control, lonely boy or girl. Things will not be getting better, but the way, though dim, will become slightly clearer with time. You can make it.

Progressive Metal is pretty bad. Delusions of grandeur, solipsism, loneliness, the works. Never before have music fans been so certain of their own superiority for having done not much more than listen to music with lots of notes. Perhaps jazz fans are more obnoxious. The worst aspect of progressive metal fandom is that it can carry on in later age (I speak as a person very much interested in progressive metal). Unlike thrash, it lacks in physicality, it's not a body release. Its modernist/humanist dream carries on, uninformed by the ontological disintegration of these movements in the hands of capitalism. The most important characteristic of progressive metal is that of self-importance. Do me a favor and ponder on the name of this blog for a moment. Right?

There is an even worse bridge between progressive metal and death metal, where we get 'brutal technical death metal'. If there's ever been a music for emotional disconnection, here it is. The blunt trauma of blastbeats and chroma further peppered with shards of scale debris, who would subject themselves to this and for what purpose? Incomprehensible, rhythmic vocals either singing about gutting that whore or exploring the cold cosmos (is there really much difference?), I really wouldn't know what to talk about with fans of this genre. Well, we could find some common ground on how good the first two Cryptopsy records are, I guess.

I am half prepared to understand 'djent' as a variation of 'brutal technical death metal', from this vantage. Their listeners are similar.

Post Metal: oh, the tortured apostates, Why are you're still trying to understand non-metal music through your heavy metal experience and aesthetical tools? For how much longer will you link jangly indie post-hardcore ambient noise bands of the week and claim they are 'crushing the earth' and 'raping half of your (mine) record collection'? Yes, Russian Circles really are the new Manowar. Such dissonance between object and impression I can only expect leads to chronic grumpiness of the highest order. Irony, waves and waves of churning irony are employed to convey a distance between esthetic information and pure 'enjoyment of music, brah' that simply isn't there. A complete lack of useful equipment to understand where post metal came from and how its (meager) offerings are best utilized.  Does post metal sound deep? In the same way a person can appear intelligent by speaking very little. All that will be left from post metal will be a few neurosis, isis and pelican records.

There's strands I didn't touch, like power groove, hair metal and despicable sludge (if it is a type of metal at all, I doubt it) because I do not have enough experience with them and am not eager to amend that gnostic gap. Oh, and I forgot Grindcore because it is forgettable.


  1. RE: Progressive Metal: Do you suppose the listeners of slightly more understated bands like Mayfair might be of a different mindset than the listeners of Spiral Architect or Behold... the Arctopus and more going off in that craziness direction? Mayfair didn't exactly seem to be too concerned with playing zillions of notes but rather with compositional structure and nuance. Seems to me there are at least two different breeds of progressive rock/metal. You've got your ELPs, Dream Theaters, Symphony Xs, and the like, and then you've got your Gentle Giants, King Crimsons (I'm thinking Larks' Tongues in Aspic here), and Mayfairs, and so on... And I would suspect that the listeners of those two camps would have different pathologies as well.

    Also, since techno-thrash might be considered a bridge between Progressive and Thrash (or not? I think you have opinions about this), would the listeners there be some combination of the two? Skaters who think they're superior to you because their music has more notes in it than yours does? I always thought techno-thrashers must consider it sort of like the Thrash for Smart People or something like that. Maybe I'm way off...

  2. Oops... didn't get all of it in...

    As I was saying... I suppose, however, that the listeners of both camps might consider themselves superior based upon different criteria: one is primarily about technique, while the other is primarily about composition.

  3. You're exactly 100% on point. Techno-thrash was and is thrash for smart people or nerdy people. And yes, again you've got it: tehnothrash is one of the two strands of metal that led to progressive metal (the other being the more mystical side of Iron Maiden and other such heavy and power acts).

    (Your grasp of the history of these genres is as solid now as this blog can help to get solid. Thumbs up!)

    There are substrands of progressive metal, yes. As there are substrands of death metal too. Demilich really shares very little with Autopsy beyond the bluntest attributes (blastbeats and a wet, meaty sound). Demilich has a type of 'cosmic dread' aspect in them that I can see appealing more to black metallers than death metal people (and history has validated this view).

    So here's the catch: For people to get that Mayfair and Watchtower aren't really that similar, though they both work from a similar palette of influences, they'd have to understand musical morphology a little. Obviously, you do (a lot), as a composer and musician. But most listeners get very, very vague impressions of the morphology of the music they listen to and are incapable of discussing it at any length. You can test this. Play Mayfair for some non-musician enthusiast and ask him if it sounds like Dream Theater and he'll say yes. There are brief moments of musical exuberance in "Behind" that will make a broader impression because the subtler traits of their music will be lost on these listeners.

    Real talk: old ambient sideproject band "Raison D'etre" (I think they're greek) in one interview for a Greek metal fanzine I had read as a youngster said that they (single person) would like at some point to make a crazy tech prog sideproject like "Watchtower and Mayfair". This made a strong impression because 1. I hunted for the words "Watchtower" like mad back then, pre-internet. And 2. I had never heard of Mayfair before.

    Later on the internet (irc days) a person suggested Mayfair a second time for me and for all I know it might have been the Raison D'etre guy again (small scene) and I still couldn't find anything of theirs at that point.

    It would be a decade later when I finally hunted these CD's down and of course they share very little with technothrash and Watchtower in particular (though they DO have actual ties, we DO know Mayfair's composers idolized bands like Fates Warning, Watchtower and Dream Theater back when they started).

    So, yes, there are substrands in everything. But most people can't really tell the difference. And not just outsiders. It takes actual study to tell the difference between Bartok and Stravinsky too.

  4. Also, Erenan, let me just mention again that I appreciate your comments very much. Thank you for sticking with the blog over its many-month hiatus.

  5. I think you are missing something from europower. As this strand developed into pop-like ABBA metal it lost pretty much all the traces of thrash (not just the music but especially any kind of skepticism) while embracing only the most utopian, "head-in-the-clouds" escapist side of Helloween.

    Let's go back to Helloween's Starlight:

    "Now there's a needle lying in front of you
    I'm frightened of those things
    But I'll know what you'll do
    You need it to escape from the night, ha ha
    You ride on thru heaven you don't feel no pain
    You ride on and ride on again and again
    On the needle that brings you the light"

    and let's compare this to Abraxas's Dreamer's Island:

    "Let these days pass by Don't believe a lie!
    Escape from reality

    Welcome to dreamers island
    leave all your sorrows leave all your troubles behind
    Travel to dreamers island start a new life!
    Better time will begin"

    You see it's like a drug. Sugarry flower metal for depressed nerds who don't want to face reality. No they don't even want to be reminded of any of it. There it is, Wendy, second star to the right and straight on 'til morning... to Never Never Land!

    I don't think it's just coincidence that the few former europower lovers I've talked to were mostly into it in their late-teens and both suffered from depression or similar mental problems. Heck, even Finland's own power metal hero Timo Tolkki had bipolar disorder.

    If you can, listen to this:


    It's all pretty clear now. The soaring melodies.. magic castles on the moon in a faraway galaxy.. You can be the hero and save this world from the evil wizard. Just put on the next Freedom Call CD or something.

    I stand with Michael Moorcock on this one and I'm pretty sure John Arch would too. Fantasy doesn't have to be just about escapism.

  6. You make a compelling case. From that point of view, power metal's audience is the most depressive there is, and they're self-medicating with it. It's interesting.

    I wonder how much the bands themselves got wise to how if they make their HM even more escapist they will sell more. If they're basically peddling the drugs that Helloween railed against on "Starlight".

  7. Speaking of depressive euro-power, here is a prime example, SONATA ARCTICA - My Selene


    Lyrics are included in the video, indulge me while I quote.

    "Solitude's upon my skin
    A Life that's bound by the chains of reality
    Would you let me be your Endymion?"

    "But until we unite
    I live for that night
    Wait for time
    Two souls entwine

    In the break of new dawn
    My hope is forlorn
    We will never meet
    Only Misery and me

    This is my final call
    My evenfall
    Drowning into time
    I become the night

    By the light of new day
    I'll fade away
    Reality cuts deep
    Would you bleed with me
    My Selene?"

    Let's see, depressed teenager, unsure of his sexual appeal, lonely, depressed and shy, fantasizing about his object of desire, painting a melodramatic picture of love that is never meant to be. All this, in a fast paced song with soaring, sugary melody.

    Speaking of Doom Metal, a genre I dearly love, I would like to put my two cents. The appeal to me, morphologically speaking, is the "Worship to the Altar of the Riff", as I like to describe it. Slow, HEAVY, riffing, that impose themselves. Good to bang your head with, but not fast enough to go crazy, creating mini mosh pit of one in the living room.

    Being depressive, is not a necessity, just unhappy and angry is good enough me. Perhaps, borderline depression, or just self awareness about the sate of one's shelf, the society, and the world. A catharsis of sort, reflecting what lies on the inside, hidden from the western world's capitalistic society's attitude that all is well if you have the latest i phone.

    I agree that the Death/Doom bands push the genre to the extreme, making it as bleak as it, but I think that that they draw their not mainly from Black Sabbath and their offsprings, but from Death Metal bands, deciding to slow things down. Take into account the sound of the Peaciville Three and early Cathedral. All bands were contemporary, but Cathedral sounded like a mix of all thing Doom - as far as the early 90's are concerned - with grunted off-key vocal delivery.

  8. I can't even listen to that Sonata Arctica song, really. But I get the point with those lyrics, yes.

    I agree that there possibly are doom/death bands that have never cared or where directly influenced by Black Sabbath. If that's a sign of ill pedigree, then there you have it: most of 'real' doom worships Black Sabbath.

    But then the question becomes, WHICH Black Sabbath? There's a world of difference between Sabotage and Paranoid era Sabbaths, for example. Candlemass were the most striking Sabbath appreciator where they have songs like Solitude directly referencing the earliest of Blacck Sabbath and then Chapter VI which is basically a big homage to (the good songs in) TYR.

  9. RE: "Also, Erenan, let me just mention again that I appreciate your comments very much. Thank you for sticking with the blog over its many-month hiatus."

    You're very welcome. Thanks for continuing to write it.