Sunday, November 6, 2011

Heavy metal, perfection, and reality

I saw Drive yesterday. In addition to probably being the best film of 2011, it also got me thinking about art in general- what did I find so immediately, viscerally appealing about the film, and how could that be applied to other things? It occurred to me after some rumination (and drinks) that what made Drive so inspiring and delightful to watch was the heady, deliberate imperfection of its story and execution. I don't use the words "perfect" or "imperfect" here to imply a sort of value judgment; rather, I'm using it to suggest adhering or not adhering to common, enjoyable standards of art and entertainment. I'm talking about symmetry versus asymmetry, closed versus open-ended plots, exposition versus the lack of anything to expose- some of the most typical conflicts between traditional and postmodern art. I got to thinking of how this could apply to metal, and why, exactly, I almost never hear albums that make me think and feel the things that Drive did.

Metal is at its root, as I've said in other posts, a genre of music which fancies itself somewhat post-modern in inspiration but is in actuality quite artistically conservative and traditionalist. Despite the harshness of distorted guitars or growls and shrieks for vocals, metal is musically mostly focused on a rather traditional sense of melodic beauty, and when not, just as often focused on a sort of steroid-infused recreation of rock and roll tropes. The closest that metal comes to really abandoning artistic tradition tends to be in artists who blur genre lines with other scenes: early grind, black/noise, drone, etc. This emphasis on a sort of "perfection" (symmetry, traditionalism, harmonious intermarriage of elements) extends to the more ideological sections of the genre: idealistic treatises on nation, religion, and culture, all with a distinct moral/ethical worldview, a message to preach, and a love of clear-cut, straightforward symbolism.

This is not necessarily a quality that is intrinsic to metal; indeed, it's common to most art forms, musical or not. However, considering metal's supposed history of cultural and artistic iconoclasm, it seems that the lack of a truly post-modern take on the genre is a rather glaring blank in its attendance sheet. This isn't to say that metal must necessarily abandon all the imagery and stylistic elements that define it as a unique and enduring style of music; merely that they can be expanded beyond the often one-dimensional execution that plagues it, and that it may be necessary to ensure its continued relevance in the years to come.

To possibly demonstrate that I'm not talking completely out of my ass, here's some examples:

Gallhammer - Taking the stripped-down ingredients of Hellhammer, early Darkthrone, and oppressive, extreme doom, Gallhammer paints dark, vivid pictures of drug addiction, misery, and gloom without ever needing to resort to played-out imagery of good and evil or obvious shock.

Nuclear Death - Their surrealist depictions of nightmarish psychological trauma combined with the insane, needling, seemingly random music that created such images makes for a band that stands out from the pack in its simultaneously traditional and transgressive qualities.

Enmity - Stripping out everything we think that death metal needs to be death metal, these guys create a horrific sort of post-death metal that feels no need to adhere to the artistic standards of classic artists, instead opting to make grinding, clinically depraved music that's beyond what we consider "music" entirely.

Artists like the above (along with a few notable others) help to push metal in directions that are both congruent with its past and productive for its future. None of these bands abandon what we immediately know as "metal aesthetics"; in fact, they embrace them wholeheartedly. However, with their deft usage of the tools at their disposal, they create music which makes one feel wholly different from just about anything else in the metal scene. Excessive postmodernism becomes trite and played out; a pinch, though, can be a catalyst for great things. What are some other bands you readers out there think would fall into this category?


  1. I had similar thoughts about extreme music when I was wondering why I never hear of grind bands playing in a style similar to that which Napalm Death did on songs like "Evolved As One"; heavily influenced by early Swans, mostly repetitive, droning, yet ultimately still "grinds" with those big, low, dissonant chords paired with a guitar tone that seems like it was filtered through a sheet metal cutter. Dorrian spewing "WEAK MIIIINNDDSSSS" ad nausem over a simple drum reminds me of the sample at the end of Discharge's song "Cries of Help", except it's undoubtedly music instead of a sound clip, but it generally has the same effect. I dunno, I'll have to think this through more, but you bring up a very interesting point. I can't really think of another band that really does that...

  2. I share this feeling, even with some metal acts/extreme music but mostly non-metal stuff.

    A few things:

    - David Lynch
    - David Lynch
    - Drive = best Hollywood film of the year or even maybe, in years
    - More David Lynch
    - Great post, made me analyze a few things and, David Lynch

  3. Branikald's second album I find exhibits these qualities. The bizarre guitar tone and the even more bizarre song structures striped down to absurd simplicity transcend what is traditionally considered metal; while simultaneously being wholly metal in itself.