Describing Metal

I sit down at my desk, pen in hand, headphones on, and click “play” on my iTunes playlist. How do I define this music that I love so? Is there a constant between these many disparate genres? It seems more like a series of spectra in various dimensions. Metal is a vague identifier that describes a subset of this multidimensional space, the boundaries of which are far from definite, and certainly not objective. I hypothesize that there are general lines within which most fans of this genre could agree to label “metal’. Sub-genres are sure to extend beyond this commonly held space, and not all sub-genres will occupy its entirety, necessarily (since some begin on the fringes and then continue into the distance). . Here are a few spectra I can identify..

Inner Peace Through METAL (an early draft)

This is really several pieces mashed together into a collage of different threads and narratives which demand more attention than I’ve given here. So this is a compendium of fragments, more rumblings to the tune of future works. Or something.

A Guitar tech tests a majestically evil-looking guitar while the crowd mills about, joking, posturing awkwardly, cheering on the tech sarcastically. The venue is small. Dingy would not be an understatement, and we can feel that we are in gritty Worcester, Massachusetts.

The crowd is filled with an unusual assortment of people. They are mostly men, and mostly white. Some have girlfriends or wives by their sides. The whiteness of the crowd is accentuated by the blackness of their attire; black shirts, black jeans, black jackets, long black hair. There are a few latinos, and one black man. Maybe. If he is there, people come up to him with curiosity and congratulations for upending the stereotypes of those who revel in subverting stereotypes (yet never really escape them).

Continue reading “Inner Peace Through METAL (an early draft)”

Metal Manifesto Part 3

Can you be Buddhist — live a life filled with compassion and happiness, and listen to Death Metal?

Does spirituality satiate the same urge, the same hunger, as music?

Some Christians would have us believe so. I heard a sermon in a Mongolian Evangelical church where the pastor lamented the youth’s finding God in “fun” things. He used music as his prime example and mimed it out for the crowd.l, hands cupping imaginary headpohones and head bobbing to an imaginary disco beat, he grinned absurdly and continued the service, “Xogjim sonsdog…!” the service concluded with the parish band resuming their places on stage and leading the crowd in yet one more enthusiastic round of Jesus-loving song. But their needs were being filled by the Jesus part, not the music, right?

Then there is Christian metal. Though the thought of death and destruction sharing a bed with Christianity is a bit less strange to me than for Buddhism, there are many Christians who avowedly preach non-violence. The Crusades kinda hurt their image a bit though. Oh, and the whole European imperialism thing.

I search for a definition of Metal. I could qualify it endlessly: Death, Black, Power, Progressive, Avant Garde, Symphonic, Viking, Doom, Folk, Nü, NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), Pagan, Christian, Shred, Neo-Classical. It becomes absurd if it wasn’t already. So what remains when the modifiers are removed? Musically, philosophically, spiritually?

What do the Christian metallers share with the Pagans and Black metallers? What is shared between happy and bouncy power metal, dry, caustic and depressive Black Metal, and pulverizing, crushing and oppressive Death metal? What about those who love it all?

… to be continued

Metal Manifesto Part II: The Radio Era

Continued from Metal Manifesto Part I: The Beginning

There are several major rock stations that are receivabble over FM radio broadcast in the Greater Boston Area (JOB?). Each tries desperately to define itself as THE definitive source of rock in the area, no matter how similar their mindless blathering DJ’s, or commercialized programming.

But it was a start. And WAAF isn’t so bad. Or wasn’t so bad. Dunno about nowadays.

There is no metal radio in Boston. Will there ever be? The metal scene is quite lively, especially out West in blue-collar Worcester, and I’m told in the Merrimack Valley as well.

So I spent my middle school years listening to crappy alternative rock/Hard Rock radio, searching for my musical identity. I found, and would later reject, for right or wrong, some bands: Sevendust, Tool, Powerman 5000, LImp Bizkit (the first step is to admit, right?).

Then I went to summer camp and met “Jesper Strömblad”.

Jesper was 16, I was 14. When you’re 14, 2 years is a bigger proportion of your life than it would be to me now, at 22. By exactly 4/77 times. Don’t ask me why that is important, it just is.

So Jesper was from a band called IN Flames, from Sweden. I would later learn that Sweden is the second most metal country in the world. (Data forthcoming). Though he was from Pennsylvania. He had long dark brown hair and a dry, caustic sense of humor.

He owned a stunningly gorgeous red Gibson SG that would inspire my own guitar years later. Why is the shape of a guitar so important? It just is. So Jesper started a band and recorded a song with them. I tagged along and gained my eventual nickname, “roadie”. But that’s a story for another time.

The next summer Jesper showed up with a CD and a story. The opening song on the CD (see below), captured my heart in an instant. The riffs were magical in their brutal beauty. It remains one of my favorite songs. And of course he had used the same main riff in the song he recorded the previous summer.

There he was in the liner notes, Jesper Strömblad. But the picture didn’t quite fit. The Jesper Strömblad in the liner notes had long blonde hair and was… a different person. Our Jesper told us about the strict Swedish laws — that prohibited minors from publishing music, thus forcing the band to use a stand-in for the photos (and live shows? So he could goto school or something?).

In any event, it’s unlikely I believed him then. I believed parts, but I was suspicious. I wanted to believe.

I also don’t remember when, exactly, the illusion dissolved and he shed the identity of Jesper.

So Jesper introduced me to metal. 4 songs from 4 bands started it all: Iron Maiden with The Whicker Man, In Flames with Embody the Invisible, Kamelot with Nights of Arabia, and Sonata Arctica with My Land.

Many people seem to have a “Heavy Metal” phase in their life. A temporary and immature indulgence in an angst-ridden sonic landscape. Especially for those who where at their angsty prime during the height of pop/glam-metal-mania (the 80’s). But metal means something very different today, in a world where it is very much not cool. Not that people don’t think it cool if you like metal, since it’s kind of unusual, but there’s definitely stigma attached to it.

What does it mean to be Metal? (Re)(de)constructing a definition of Metalness. \m/


UPDATE: FINAL VERSION: Inner Piece Through Metal

Here’s the (very) rough draft. I’d love feedback, but only if it’s constructive. Otherwise it gets deleted and ignored 🙂

I’m collecting perspectives for a creative nonfiction piece that I’m writing about Heavy Metal.

Continue reading “What does it mean to be Metal? (Re)(de)constructing a definition of Metalness. \m/”

Metal Manifesto Part I: The Beginning

So. It all began some time between the third and fifth grades. I seem to remember things from this period by grades. Each year is divided by that one major change–moving to the next level in school; like the next level of a video game the enemies get craftier and stronger, the bosses more lethal, and your weapons more potent. Or something. So there are several possible beginnings. Or perhaps it’s a series of events…

  • I saw the music video for the Smashing Pumpkins’, Tonight, Tonight and was, for some reason, struck by it. Logically, I went out and bought the CD, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I wouldn’t understand the title of the album for at least five years. At least, I wouldn’t know that I’d understood the title. The meaning is a bit hard to miss when you hear the music. The album was released on October 24, 1995; so I was around 10 years old. Which is like, third grade, right? I always have to recount from the beginning to figure that out. So I bought the CD, a double album, despite the fact that the one song I knew was nothing like anything else on the album. Yet I don’t remember realizing that, or particularly caring at the time. But the songs I listened to most where the heavy ones. Like the buzz-sawing, Zero; the crushingly distorted Bodies; the ever-classic, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, with the timeless chorus, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”. Etc.
  • The most random segment of the story; I saw the music video for Breakfast at Tiffany’s before a movie at the local theater. I liked the song, and borrowed the CD from a friend/babysitter. I distinctly remember the chill I felt upon realizing just what it was about the songs on the album (by Deep Blue Something) that spoke to me. The aggressive distortedness. But I wanted more.
  • My friend bought it. Someone brought it into school on their discman. I was intrigued. So I bought Smash by the Offspring. It 0wn3d me. It still does.
  • Thus began The First Era. And it was Pretty Good. But the Second Era would be Better.

    Enter the Blessed Ones

    NOTE: This piece is from last year, posted here for posterity and for the time when I eventually resume working on it. For now, check it out if you’re curious, but by no means feel obligated. Feedback is always welcome, of course.

    Date of last revision: 1 November 2006

    There is a look that I have grown to recognize; one that creeps up mid-conversation and fills me with dread. It says “Ok, I hear you. Uh, yeah. Okay. I get it already”. It says “Why is he still talking?“ It shows a polite disinterest, a rising level of conversation-fatigue. My mind floods with questions: How long have they not wanted to listen? How do I rescue the situation? Why aren’t they interested? Was it the way I was explaining things? Did I say too much? Too fragmented? Too much detail? Too tangential? It only happens at parties, or at dining hall.

    Attention deficit? But I have no shortage of attention, if anything there are times when it is in excess! Yet there is some truth to this, as researchers have consistently found AD/HD to be linked with inefficiency in the allocation of attentional resources.

    Attention: The span thereof. The ability to regulate and allocate the necessary attentional resources. Executive brain functions. Like the CEO of your brain, but wait, he’s a drunk! Where’d those papers go? What do we do now? When do we do it? What do I do? Which do I do? where who why when what… {//… kernel error. overload}

    Continue reading “Enter the Blessed Ones”