Thursday, April 03, 2008

Heavy Metal

Somebody asked me the other day, in an offhand sort of way, “What’s the deal with all this bang-your-head music the kids listen to?” Apart from wondering how many times in the last thirty years that phrase has been uttered, I was at a loss for a truly good answer that wouldn’t take twenty minutes to relate. Having been a head-banger for nearly twenty years, I thought it was finally time to boil down my long, involved explanation of why people love metal into a short, succinct statement that I could give without people drifting off… or at least get it down to three paragraphs.

The first part of it is that metal is a ready made peer group for angst-ridden teenagers. Boiling with hormones, anxiety and anger, and with no good outlet for it, guys that don’t smash into other guys on the football field find their way to metal to get their aggression out. Like so many forms of music it’s a cathartic experience, either directly through the content of the songs, or just from simply knowing that there are others who feel the way you do. And so, like I did, many a junior high kid finds himself with an art-form to pursue, some guys to pursue it with, and a wardrobe that scares his parents.

The second part is that good metal is really, really good. There’s a lot of dregs out there in the ol’ coffee pot, but good metal takes time and dedication. If you’re a little bit crafty, you can write a good country song, and you can write a punk, or pop song sitting on the can and have it turn out all right. Phenomenal musicians put this stuff together, and more than a few kids have struggled to learn their favorite riff on a poorly tuned guitar, only to find that it doesn’t sound as good as the album. Much to the glee of people who sell distortion pedals, the kids don’t realize that it’s not their tone (and decided lack of skill) that makes their rendition sound lame, it’s the fact that good metal layers the guitar parts in much the same way that classical music has a melody and counterpoint. A good metal tune might not even sound right until you add in the drums as well. Having watched the evolution of metal for the last two decades, the thirst for proficiency seems to have no bounds. Now that the cutting edge is to start where bands left off in the late eighties, go faster, and add more layers, the intricacy is several orders of magnitude higher.

The last part goes back to that raw emotion. The anger and aggression that is the motivating force just has to be there. That’s why so-called “math metal” only appeals to a small sub-set of metal fans. Crazy time signatures and guitar licks so fast they bleed together can’t stand up to the raw groove power of a Pantera tune, or the grind of an Overkill song that sounds like a machine that eats people. Those examples, by the way, are bands that have managed to hang on to their attitude, while still growing and changing. Some people find it engrossing how Metallica went from the heights of metal power, to sliding down to writing country tunes and airing their dirty laundry on HBO. (I’ll never forget when my friend who is a huge Metallica fan called me up to tell me to rush out and buy the new record. “You’ll love the music” he said, “the lyrics are a little whatever, but it rules!” I thought, “Great, three years and millions of dollars and all they can give us is half an album?”) Myself, I’ll take Slayer… twenty-five years and still pissed… I mean PISSED! Even being a fairly mellow, church-going, Bible-believing father of three, I still find myself boiling over and need to scream along with Reign In Blood or Stain Of Mind on the way home from work occasionally. I never left that peer group and I likely never will.

1 comment:

  1. oh heck yes.
    i still enjoy Stryper, Thrice, Mortal Treason, old Blindside. all the older metal i grew up on.
    even as older men we need to vent our anger, frustration and it's the perfect way.
    GREAT points. you're such a smart guy.


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