Music Monday: Why I listen to metal

Headbang.gifMy music tastes range widely, from opera to progressive rock, from Johnny Cash to “Jesus tunes” (the ones that don’t drive me nuts). But nothing seems to kick up more dust than my appreciation for metal and hardcore.

I’ve had people tell me that metal is bad because it’s angry, because it’s just noise, because any vocalist who’s screaming must be deeply disturbed, because it lacks beauty, because it has bad themes, and–of course–because it’s “Satanic.”

From the outset let me clarify that I don’t expect anyone to change their musical tastes because anyone else suggests they should. I don’t particularly care whether YOU like heavy music or not.

But I do appreciate it when people move from “your music sucks because it’s evil” to “I don’t share your musical tastes, but I’m glad you found something you enjoy.”  I’d rather stab myself in the eye than listen to today’s country music, but I’m not on a crusade to condemn its listeners — as if the music itself were somehow evil just because I can’t handle the twangy guitars, raspy female vocals, cheesy Republican lyrics, and tired references to redneck culture.

Ok, that last paragraph went a bit far, but maybe we can agree that violent disagreement over musical taste doesn’t equal the ability to make moral judgments about music I don’t like or the people who listen to it. Lyrics do communicate meaning, and as such they are open to critique and analysis, but it’s difficult to make any objective assessments about sound waves.

I can subjectively suggest that some musicians are more talented than others, and I certainly know which sounds please my ears, but I left “this music is evil” behind a long time ago. So if you’re operating from the premise that whole genres can be labeled sinful, I encourage you to read this post and this one plus the one I just mentioned. I grew up in that world, and it took me a long time to unwind my conscience from non-biblical rules.

OK, so back to the topic: Can I defend my enjoyment of metal & hardcore music?  Yes. But we need to define some terms first….

And you should TOTALLY watch this Homestar-Runner / Strong Bad video classic from the early 2006 as part of your initial orientation:

SOME IMPORTANT BITS YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND

  • Don’t lump everything together that sounds “heavy” or has vocals with screaming and call it “Emo” or “Screamo” or “metal” or “Satan’s Music.” There are a variety of subgenera in play here, and you could at least acknowledge your ignorance and do a little reading (Wikipedia: heavy metal and hardcore)
  • At its simplest, metal *tends* to be more characterized by guitar riffs and precision fast solos while hardcore *tends* to be built more on breakdowns, sections where very rhythmic chording in the guitars, drums, and bass drive the music forward.  These are very very general statements and you’ll find hundreds of exceptions. But the two main streams (hardcore and metal) grew out of totally different music scenes in the 70s and 80s.  What might sound like a similar cacophony of loud noise to you actually represents many fine shades of difference to the aficionado.
  • Vocals range widely within metal and hardcore. Not all vocalists scream or growl, though many bands employ that technique at least in points. But some metal is all instrumental (see: Animals As Leaders)
  • The heavy genres do not necessarily focus on “dark” content or rampant sex (hello, 80s metal!). Some bands do, just like some rap artists sing only about prison culture or some hip hop songs are nothing but sex and objectifying women. But to define an entire genre by its worst examples is uncharitable and definitely an oversimplification.
  • Some people assume that only adolescents (or adults stuck in that phase) would find this music appealing. That’s pretty demeaning, and it’s really not true.
  • I’ve been to quite a few live shows in the past 10 years, and usually the people around me are some of the nicest I’ve ever met. [Side note: If the girl behind the counter at Hot Topic scares you because her hair is pink and she has 4 face piercings, then you probably aren’t ready for metal. Also, you seem kind of judgmental and probably should get out of your bubble more often.]  Metalheads are good folk. Most of the time.
  • There are Christian metal / hardcore bands too, and a lot more who are Christians-making-music in the genre (which tend to be the better bands). If that’s important to you.

When people pick a fight with me over metal/hardcore music in the life of a Christian, their argument usually focuses on two objections: the content, and the ugliness of screamed vocals. So let me discuss those in turn:

ABOUT SCREAMING

I know a lot of folks are turned off by hearing a vocalist scream – though to be fair, you’ve probably listened to something on the radio that gets in the neighborhood. Hard rock groups like Linkin Park or Skillet get plenty of mainstream radio play without tripping anyone’s discomfort meter. And some female pop artists, with the “vocal fry” that’s become a thing these days, are dancing very close to the same “texture.”

Really, screaming is about texture. It’s not about anger. That’s the core thing you need to grasp about metal and hardcore. People hear a guy yelling into a microphone and naturally assume he’s pissed as hell, when really, he probably isn’t.

The screamed vocals lend intensity; they add a texture to the music that wouldn’t otherwise be there. They also cut through the wall of sound coming out of the guitars, bass, and drums in a crowded hall.

ABOUT CONTENT

Is it ok to listen to music where the lyrics are obscured by the vocalist’s vocal technique?  To me, yes. I read the CD’s liner notes if I want to care about lyrics or look them up. I’m not trying to sing along; I’m usually playing air guitar.

More seriously:  Metal and hardcore have both earned negative reputations because the culture around the music *sometimes* rewards shock and offense in both lyrical content and performance. Before you leap up and shout “Gotcha!” remember that pop, hip hop, and rap suffer from the same disease.

Obviously “Miley Cyrus is doing it too!” isn’t a great defense for anything. And that’s not my point. Stated positively, if you look at quality bands within the genres, you can find plenty of examples of thoughtful songwriters crafting lyrics to address the breadth of human experience from love and loss to “issues” and politics.

One of my favorite bands, Between the Buried and Me, often sings about the soul-sucking emptiness of chasing power and money within our capitalist society. They did an entire album (Colors) to explore what creativity looks like in the life of the musician-artist. The final song on the album, “White Walls,” explores the pressure on a successful band to produce mediocrity (because it’s popular), ending with the band’s determination to break through that tired circle to produce music that will outlast them.

I’m not going to deny that plenty of bands in the heavy music genres focus on negative themes. If your goal is to find people talking about hurt and anger, you’ll find it. But I don’t think that’s a fair picture of the genre any more than it’s fair to condemn all country as naive God-and-countryism, all pop as shallow and bad music, all hiphop as sexual exploitation.

Happy headbanging has been around for a long time. Go Wayne! Go Garth!
Happy headbanging has been around for a long time. Go Wayne! Go Garth!

A DEFENSE OF METAL

So … why do I listen to metal, hardcore, and related genres?

1. The music can be really complex, fascinating, interesting, intricate.  I truly enjoy complexity in music as well as beauty.  And its the complexity that holds my attention usually. My brain gets to process 4 things happening at once instead of one or two.

2. The best in these genres borrow heavily from jazz or classical music. The more “progressive” the band, the more jazzy the bass lines get. Metal is known for virtuosic guitar solos, which if you were to play them on a piano instead of a guitar with distortion, you’d probably think you were listening to Beethoven. Good writing is good writing, and the best musicians in the business spend a lot of time listening to music outside their genre.

3. Not all human experience fits soft, gentle music or sweet, uncomplicated songs. I get tired of the saccharine world of pop, the family/country themes in country music, the sexuality of most music. If I were trying to set the book of Amos to music, 99% of what I hear in church would be useless for that task. Our lives are messy, difficult, and full of battles. To require all music to fit into some preconceived box of “propriety,” a box that never allows  anything dangerous or violent or disturbing, robs us all from the opportunity to explore negative emotions as well as positive ones.

4. Beauty is subjective. I’m sorry, but if you insist that you can know objectively some official set of standards for what is beautiful, I am going to walk away. God didn’t send us a CD or art gallery along with scriptural revelation. So we might need to “agree to disagree” when it comes to beauty-in-dissonance. But before you decide anything non-tonal is bad, consider the powerful push-pull effect of dissonance within, say, Bach’s Chorales. He sets very dissonant tones just so he can resolve them. And it’s gorgeous. Those same push-pull effects are at work in metal too, or when one vocalist is screaming and another is singing. (Ah, I love that!)

A FEW FAVORITES IF YOU WANT TO EXPLORE

I should note that I moved through metal/hardcore into progressive metal and genre-bending stuff in recent years. Tastes grow and change over time; good quality music is always welcome in my music library but I’ve jettisoned the bulk of the bands people have heard of in these genres because I got bored with them. *chugga chugga chugga wug wug* *yawns*

I also need to note that like any music, art, or literature with sophistication and a lengthy history of development, you probably won’t enjoy it until you learn enough to comprehend genre conventions. Hardcore and metal are an acquired taste.

Animal has been my hero since I first saw him on TV, probably before 1980
Animal has been my hero since I first saw him on TV, probably before 1980

If you aren’t sure how to start out listening to this stuff, I recommend focusing on ONE element of the music that you do find appealing or interesting or just able to follow.  The rhythms are often pretty interesting and fun to rock out with, and the more enthusiastically you enjoy those rhythms, the closer you get to “headbanging,” which is basically just letting your entire body respond to what you’re hearing, but in a stylized way common to the genre.

I find that well-written music in these genres is able to move a melody line or rhythm structure among the various instruments. You might notice pattens being repeated, maybe even in a call-and-answer fashion.  Or you could try to focus on the skill of the musicians, especially bass and guitar solos.

Here are a few tracks (Spotify playlist) you can try, with an explanation for each (below). I should note that these aren’t necessarily “the best examples” … but they’re pretty accessible to even a non-metal fan.

TRACK EXPLANATIONS

1. Animals as Leaders – “Tempting Time”
AAL blew my mind when I first saw them live. Three guys, no vocals, just a gorgeous 8-string guitar in the hands of Tosin Abasi, who is probably one of the greatest living guitarists. If you don’t like metal at all, you can probably handle this track – no words at all.  (And did you see Jesse’s amazing piano cover??)

2.  Underoath – “Some will seek forgiveness, others escape”
This song has both a musical note and a personal one:  This hardcore track is a really neat meditation on God’s grace. The lyrics are a back-and-forth discussion between God and one of His children, promising us that no matter how badly we fail, He remains faithful. “Hey unloving, I will love you.”  But also, songs can carry intense connections to memories. For me, this track is associated with the grief I saw among my students as they mourned for their 16 year old friend who was killed in a car accident two days before Thanksgiving. “Jesus, I’m ready to come home” explodes out of the screamer near the end of the song, as the singer keeps the vocals going. I find that duality powerful.

3. Attack! Attack! – “Dr Shavargo Pt. 3”
If a hardcore band fell into a vat of EDM music, it would sound like this. I think they’re hilarious. Whenever I’m trying to get graphic design work done, this album comes out because it makes the time just fly.  If you hate the vocals in the early part of the song, skim along to the 1:55 mark where they blend in the electronic. Another band who had both a singer and a screamer so they could combine the two. Too bad this band broke up a couple years ago.

4. Unearth – “This Lying World
Possibly one of the best metalcore song openings ever. Metalcore combines the riffs and vocal styles of metal with the chugga chugga rhythms of hardcore breakdowns. The entire opening sequence is one glorious breakdown. Get ready to dance. If you find the song itself repetitive, skim along to the 2/3 mark where things shift a little  before heading into another great breakdown, introduced by the singer yelling “Breakdown!” in case we were going to miss it….
[Literary bonus points:  Unearth has a song called “Giles” about Giles Corey out of Arthur Miller’s Crucible, the man who was pressed to death because he refused to sign a false confession to escape a horrible execution.]

5. Between the Buried and Me – “Selkies: The Endless Obsession”
Truth: This will be a tough listen if you don’t like metal. So give it a shot. When you can’t handle any more, drag the playhead over to the 3:30 mark because the song is about to take a radical left-turn into jazzy rock that you will probably really enjoy– This is the joy of prog-metal.  Also one of BTBAM’s best. I’ve seen them play this live in concert many times and they don’t miss a single note.

6. Hopesfall – “The Bending”
Unfortunately, this Charlotte-based hardcore band broke up a few years ago. But this track is still one of my favorites. The dissonant section in the middle (begins around 1:45) is breathtaking (to me) – the guitars warble barely a half step apart before finally resolving into the bridge.  Love it.

7. Straight Line Stitch – “Remission”
It’s rare to find a woman in this business. Even more rare to find an African American woman singing in a metal band. When I saw this song pop up on MTV several years ago, I was stunned. You may not like this track very much, but at least skim along until you hear Alexis singing normally – she brings a rich alto to the traditional vocals and a throaty scream to the metal-y bits. And she’s so kind. I’ve seen her play local clubs twice, and she’s such a neat person if you get a chance to talk to her.

8. He Is Legend – “The Seduction”
This track includes a video you MUST watch, because if you haven’t seen Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reimagined as a love story between puppet monsters, you haven’t lived….

9. August Burns Red – “Composure”
Bonus track for those of you who’ve stuck with me this far, and proof that metalcore has positive music too. This song offers a hopeful message to people ground down by life. Also, if you’ve developed a love for headbanging, this track will make you very sore.  Here’s a lyric video since you probably can’t understand what he’s saying….

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