By Garrick Hoffman
Liberal Arts Major
Art is an inherently subjective form. What you hate, I may love. What I love, you may despise. I absolutely love metal music.
With three brothers in my house alongside me, I grew up listening to rock music: Nirvana, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Disturbed. My parents were pretty big into classic rock, especially my father: Def Leppard, Tom Petty, Boston, Rush. I had that early exposure to the world of rock music at a young age. By 8th grade I discovered who are to this day one of my favorite metal bands, Killswitch Engage, after hearing their song “Rose of Sharyn” (which I actually did a guitar cover of with my own little original solo that you can find on YouTube, if you care to check it out). At first I was a bit turned off – it was a little too heavy for me, as it strayed from the typical “mainstream” rock sound I was so acclimated to. Instead of primarily singing with some seldom screaming, this new music was almost entirely screaming with seldom singing. The guitar riffs were heavier, faster. Double bass on the drums was rampant, as were what are called “blast beats” – incessant (but rhythmic) snare strikes to match or even enhance the intensity of the song. It was all an overload of sound I couldn’t quite get into, save for a few songs.
But I was still listening to KsE and enjoying the music more and more. Eventually my girlfriend in high school introduced me to more bands: As I Lay Dying, All That Remains, and Trivium. It all caught on to me as if it was an infection. Next thing I know, I became infatuated with the music.
Now I’m listening to other bands that still were once upon a time “too heavy” for me: August Burns Red, Parkway Drive, World Under Blood. How I adore this music now.
Metal is often on the receiving end of contempt, dismissal, and repulsion. It can be characterized as obnoxious, devoid of spirit or color, rage-driven, and even satanic. When I hear someone say that metal is farthest from being their cup of tea, they almost invariably say it’s because “I can’t understand the lyrics,” although I think their explanation is actually inaccurate. What I think they mean to say is, “The music is actively obnoxious.” Think about a band like the Stone Temple Pilots, whose lyrics are – at least to me – often incomprehensible as a result of their vocalist’s singing style. But throughout your life you’ve probably had to look up the lyrics to some of your favorite songs for clarity. However, just because you “can’t understand the lyrics,” you’re not deterred from listening to the music that you enjoy.
Many people cannot begin to conceive how this music is enjoyable. But let me tell you how it resonates within me. I’ve sort of dissected it by now, understanding why and how this affinity of mine has developed for a music style so often reproached.
Metal – which I use as an umbrella term, since sub-genres are always moot – can vary. It can have some singing (Killswitch Engage, World Under Blood, Unearth) and it can have no singing at all, with the exception of some chanting here and there (August Burns Red, Parkway Drive). It can embody a different generational sound (Metallica or Pantera vs. Bullet For My Valentine or Trivium). It can be heavy with melodic elements (any of the aforementioned bands) or it could be strictly heavy, seeping more into the “hardcore” genre for example that I’m not much a fan of (The Acacia Strain, Job For a Cowboy). It could even be a bit more melodramatic, which I’m also not much a fan of (Bring Me The Horizon). Of course, as I noted, the sub-genres in which these or any bands fall into can be disputed endlessly, which is really a senseless battle that warrants no energy or time investment.
The metal I’m in love with bears a melodic element that really tickles my fancy. It’s, I argue, a happy medium: not overbearingly bludgeoning me with sounds heavier than a bucket of iron, while also not crossing into the land of melodrama (the band Chiodos being an exception of the latter, who I’ve come to really enjoy over the years).
And this melody in metal, which I relish, and which I believe gives the song substance and dimension, often goes undetected by the average, inexperienced metal listener. There’s a wonderfully skilled, independent pianist from Australia who goes by the moniker of missTIQmusiq. She makes piano covers of some of her (and my, for that matter) favorite metal bands. In her covers, the melody of those metal songs truly shines, as it’s stripped of all the other chaos found in metal: no harsh, screaming vocals; no chugging, driving guitar riffs; no percussion with relentless blast beats or hyper double bass. Even though I love all of those elements, when they’re all omitted and the melody of the music is deftly conveyed through a classical instrument, it doesn’t take a fool to recognize the beauty that lay in metal. That beauty, that melody, is, to the inexperienced listener, veiled by all the instrumental pandemonium that chiefly comprises the music.
Of course, that instrumental pandemonium is of enormous appeal to many a metal fan. The sheer energy, the intense drive, the galvanizing electricity that defines the spine of metal, all blends into a delightful, adrenaline-fueled recipe of music. It sinks into your skin and ignites you. It transforms me, personally, into a wild, animalistic vessel of motion and [i]e[i]motion. You should see me at a show. You might laugh, be weirded out, or be concerned. Or all of the above.
What inspired me to write this column was a recent moment in which I was listening to a song on my college campus. It’s a song called “Echoes” by August Burns Red. The last minute and a half of “Echoes” is some of the most instrumentally and vocally beautiful, emotional, and moving music I’ve ever laid my ears upon. Four out of five times I listen to that song I get deep chills, merely as a product of its emotional and melodic force. I began to think, “People perceive metal as this repulsive genre of music composed of cacophonous noises and sincerely enraged vocals and lyrics.” That may be the case for some bands, but at least not for the bands I listen to (at the risk of sounding self-righteous). I see how metal moves me and it inspires me to both share my sentiments and to perhaps conceive in readers a renewed perception of metal.
As a digression into “enraged vocals and lyrics,” this is another misconception. Naturally, people listen and think the screaming vocal style is the essence of rage. But it’s merely a style to mold with the music. And the lyrics are often not even rage-driven, although they can be emotionally-driven in a perhaps critical or cynical way. But they can also be very touching, inspiring, poetic, creative, and intelligent. Let me juxtapose both, respectively, with lyrics I revere:
From Parkway Drive’s “Sleepwalkers”, which I interpret as socio-political commentary that reproaches materialism, selling our dreams for small desires (as Rush would say), and complacency with ignorance:
[b]“Buried alive at birth, never to return; Chained the masses, trapped and trained by vicious minds;…Sleepwalk our lives away in search of shallow graves.”[b]
And from Killswitch Engage’s “In Due Time”, in which the lyrical matters revolve around the vocalist’s personal struggles and his encouragement for others to rise above their own plights as he did:
[b]“All that we suffer through leads to determination; The trials we all go through gives us the strength to carry on; Something within us burns, desire feeds the will to live; A reason to believe I will see redemption; All in due time, see the world through different eyes; All in due time, the shadows will give way to light.”[b]
Furthermore, many a metalhead takes utmost regard for their craft. They can truly be extraordinary musicians who make music bearing extraordinary musicianship. They can be vehemently affectionate for the product of their work. Also, their appreciation for their fans and their visible altruism are often broadcast, made evident through social media posts. Frequently I see “Thank You for coming out to the show!” posts from many of my favorite bands. Killswitch Engage held an online charitable donation event for an individual befallen by cancer, and they also collaborated with the Make a Wish foundation. August Burns Red held a show near Christmas time in 2013 and invited Toys For Tots to set up at their show, encouraging show attendees to bring gifts with them to submit.
Beyond all of this is the camaraderie that accompanies metal. Since it’s comparatively a bit of an esoteric community (unless you fall into the kingdom of Metallica fans), I think there’s a certain bond that permeates throughout the metal community. It’s as if we view each like-minded metal fan as a rarity we can bond with, since metal isn’t universally adored. At metal shows, moshing can become intense if not dangerous, so the duty of each participant is to look out for one another. When one falls, participants or surrounding show attendees are quick to pick up the downed mosher. At the last show I went to – August Burns Red in Boston – my shoe came untied near the mosh pit, and a stranger shielded me from the rowdy moshers while I bent down to tie my shoe. It’s an unspoken responsibility that’s so heartening to see in action – all these strangers hitting and bumping and thrashing into each other at their own risk with this natural affection and regard among them. Anyone could get hurt, but no one wants to see anyone get hurt. It’s all in good fun, although there’s undoubtedly the pugnacious few who attend shows to get a little more than just rowdy. Those few attend to unleash and channel their aggression, surely.
Jon Gomm, an English solo acoustic musician, who last summer was invited to play at the British rock Download Festival, posted this on his Facebook following the festival:
“Metal people are the best people. As a non-metal [musician] (although I can feel that changing inside me), I just wanna point out an obvious thing: Metal fans are like a family. The bullshit media stereotype of ‘Teenage Gunman Was Death Metal Fan’ makes me so angry. I’ve never felt more appreciation, respect, humour and LOVE at a festival. I hope when I have kids they’re metal fans. Maximum respect to you all.”
And as a side note, speaking of camaraderie, there’s nothing that can parallel the sight of hundreds (or thousands) of fists simultaneously striking the air in honor of metal. Now that’s community.
In conclusion, metal isn’t necessarily what you perceive it to be. It bears more substance than you may think, and its melodic elements and lyrical content are of great – and perhaps unexpected – appeal. You may not love it or even like it, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a chance.