Saturday, September 28, 2013

English as a Second Language, Heavy Metal as the First

This is an article in defense of the often awkward language used in lyrics by a great number of Heavy Metal bands that were not native speakers.

Does such a defense need to exist? Yes for two reasons: one is apparent. Heavy Metal is often assaulted on grounds of aesthetic or lyrical frivolity. People say that metal bands sing about escapist bullshit, dragons and rainbows and whatever, and they don't even do a good job of it because those topics have been covered eloquently in romantic and gothic tradition for hundreds of years. Parts of that statement are correct.

The other reason such a defense is needed is because when people try to deflect the above criticism, they do it by providing examples of Heavy Metal lyrics that they think would stand up as poetry. The results are often hilarious because in most cases they do not and the only one that can't see this is is the metalhead that hasn't really read much poetry. Such congratulatory self-defeat ("I am bleeding, making me the victor") is endemic in Heavy Metal circles, so here's a different way to approach the subject.

Bad Heavy Metal lyric and good Heavy Metal lyric best are both approached through Heavy Metal, not outside of it. This might seem like an obtuse statement, so let's illuminate it a little with a few examples of great lyrics by foreigners, speaking through Heavy Metal as their first language:

The buildings are made of gold
The sun shines bright
Out of a blue, a clear blue sky

The streets are clean

The people laugh
The animal are free

No hate - noone cries

No industry polluts the water
The sea is filled with movement and life

No more distrust

No more disgust
And no more war

Peace forevermore

The goverments scrap all the useless weapons
They are not bribable any longer

Everyone is happy

No more pain

But suddenly it's fading away

I wake up it's 12 o'clock

This is literally the writing level of a five year old. Protector were German. What they're communicating here is not something a five year old would try to communicate. They're not a punk band, they're not very smart about what they want to say but they said it anyway.

What is achieved? I ask that we look at the cover of the record, the name of it, and listen to the song while we read these lyrics. On the cover we have some insane looking monstrosity clawing its way through a painting or graph of a skeleton. It's as if the image is violently animated, a concept is made flesh in the shadows. The actual expression of the being is somehow humourous, to me, all wide-eyed with shock. The being, possibly the titular "Urm" in this light, seems fitting to the concept and execution of the above lyric.

Remnants of Protector's rote satanic Heavy Metal past remain on their logo, what with the red pentagram. Protector have nothing satanic to offer on this song (and record, if memory serves). Confused ideology, again is fitting to what they're singing about above.

And finally to the performance itself, Protector's music is so alienating for anyone expecting any type of 'fun' in their thrash metal. The guitar tone is singularly ugly, the composition completely dry, the vocal execution cavernous and very simple, a recitation of words. No flow, no emotion.

And this is exactly why this is such a spectacular success as a song and as a message. Because every aspect of its form supports its content. The content itself is really bereft of a political message, there is absolutely no attempt to contextualize who these 'goverments' are that scrap their weapons are, and whatnot. This is an expression of existential angst in its purest form with the added revolutionary quality that somehow Heavy Metal allows for: there is no resolution to this angst, this angst is all we have. Nothing will ever change.

The context can easily be researched. Protector were German, operating circa 1986 to 1989 (When this particular record came out). The Cold War tensions inherent in that setup are evident, yet there is no retelling in this particular song. Would there be, if Protector could actually articulate themselves in a second language? Probably (check a great many sociopolitical German thrash bands of the time, with Sieges Even being the absolutely most notable on their song "David" off of "Life Cycles"). But that speculation is moot as what we have at hand is exactly this, no less no more.

Those that want to make a case for erudite Heavy Metal lyrics can turn to Sabbat and early Fates Warning and they can attempt to explain how these songs aren't *really* about dragons and escapism. I can do that and might in the future, but for right now, what we need is a defense of Urm the Mad, Urm the Five Year Old, Urm the Child that doesn't understand why the world around them functions on regurgitation of past trauma. Not great poetry? Sure. Great art.

Another example, much better known:

All together now:

Obscured by the sun
Apocalyptic clash
Cities fall in ruin
Why must we die?

Obliteration of mankind
Under a pale grey sky
We shall arise

I did nothing, saw nothing
Terrorist confrontation
Waiting for the end
Wartime conspiracy

I see the world - old
I see the world - dead

Victims of war, 
Seeking some salvation
Last wish, fatality
I've no land, I'm from nowhere
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Face the enemy
Manic thoughts
Religious intervention
Problems remain

This faux haiku delivery of the notoriously English-impaired Brazilian thrash/death behemoth, Sepultura, defined the early '90s in what Heavy Metal is, so pay attention. This videoclip is to blame for many of us here thinking Brazil is some post-apocalyptic wasteland in our teenager years. Here in Greece, Sepultura were decidedly the landmark band that shaped what our own country was doing in extreme metal and you could find three-or-less word condemnations of politics and environmental paeans in every second thrash metal demo. Their message survives through language barriers by sheer force of will.

And how can you not love this delivery? OBSCURED BY THE SUN! APOCALYPTIC CLASH! RELIGIOUS INTERVENTION! PROBLEMS REMAIN! This is pretty much life defined. The resolute power of this song would be nowhere near as impactful were the lyrics written by a native speaker. And we have proof of this in "Stronger than Hate", a Sepultura cut from their prior record "Beneath the Remains" with lyrics by Kelly Shaeffer from Atheist.

I shall redeem myself from the clutches
That grasp at my inner self

No tomorrow will ease my oppression
My streak of hate leads my way

Look at me
My feelings turn
Stronger than hate
I can't decide on which way to turn
My choices are few and far between
A lifetime of remorse

There's no place that I've ever been
I stand above their remains
My vengeance I have regained

I don't know what lies on the floor
I won't be locked up anymore
Standing here I've lost all faith
I have no social equality

To live again would be a lie
My life is not worth the pain

Much, much worse, if you ask me. Bring back the Apocalyptic Clash. And you know what the above lyrics by Shaeffer remind me most of? The type of lyrics people bring up when they want to defend how great 'the right' metal lyrics are. Heavy Metal is at its best not when it's underperforming poetry, but when it's elevating its stupidity to the profound. This happens through musical and extra-musical means, this happens with record covers, and band photos, and interviews, and liner notes, and it comes from concentrated listening and the awe brought upon the listener when they do the deed in solitude and outside of normality. When people are looking for great Heavy Metal poetry to defend their hobby to outsiders, they're ripping out a surface text from an experience that is multi-faceted and most importantly, unapologetically unwieldy and crude.

Of course there is smart Heavy Metal, and there's smart Heavy Metal lyric. The aforementioned Sabbat often employ clever wordplay and have a healthy message amongst all the thrashing carnage. And there are also native speakers writing in Heavy Metal bands, after all the world's most important HM bands are American and British. But I think I'm hitting on some truth when I say that we need to recontextualize the 'bad Heavy Metal lyric' and see what it achieves from within that context where it is necessarily for it to be bad. Not a problem to be fixed. It is I believe an error to cherry-pick the few examples of craftsmanship in our genre and fashion a critical shield with them. Instead, demand that the critic experience the context of the dumb lyric to see that they're not really missing out on some profound message that only the initiated can grasp. Heavy Metal is truly often as stupid as it seems. But it is also powerful for it, because that dumb song some Germans over the Iron Curtain came up with? There was tremendous personal sacrifice for them to be able to put it on vinyl in 1989.


  1. persuasive defence for Urm the Mad and HM as first language.

  2. I've always found it a little weird to present lyrics divorced from their musical context as though they were an example of poetry. Poet and lyricist are related but nonidentical roles, so there is no real need for lyrics to be good poetry. Obviously, it is possible to write lyrics that function well as a poem, and also it is possible to write lyrics that function well both as a poem and as the lyrics to a musical piece. But it is completely possible to write lyrics that are great as lyrics but which make for piss poor poetry, and it is definitely an error to view this as a failure on the part of the lyricist. I agree very strongly with this post.

  3. Yes! This is something that a lot of people don't seem to get. It saddens me to witness heavy metal apologists trying to defend their beloved genre either by pointing out supposedly good heavy metal lyric - the faux-poetic ones you talk about - or embracing the "stupid" ones but treating them basicly as meaningless fun, not to be taken seriously even for a second.

    The truly bad heavy metal lyrics for me are those that make endless references to the genre or to band itself. Like modern Darkthrone and 80% of Manowar discography. So meta-metal...