Music on Trial: Metal music: is it worth it?

Let’s face it: heavy metal has a bad reputation. Critics of the genre often generalize the music as lacking any real aesthetic or artistic appeal, citing the hellish howling of the death-growl or the frenetic squeal of overdriven guitars. Metal fans are frequently stereotyped as a subculture of machismo misfits decked out in black band T-shirts and leather jackets. Whether it’s the demonically face-painted members of KISS, the pyrotechnics of Rammstein or even the names of some bands – Death, Bloodbath or Cannibal Corpse, to name a few of the tamer ones – metal doesn’t exactly have a great public image.

Yet metal is successful. Metal concerts and festivals consistently draw huge crowds of devoted fans. Top metal albums go platinum multiple times over, and many metal bands have enjoyed long and lucrative careers. Despite heavy criticism, heavy metal is alive and well.

So why has metal stuck around? Perhaps it’s because many common complaints against metal music simply are not true:

1. All heavy metal sounds the same.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, there are probably more subgenres of heavy metal than any other kind of music today, except perhaps jazz. Taken together, the different subgenres of metal music draw on practically every other musical tradition out there, from classical to Celtic to hip-hop. From progressive metal to melodic death metal to, yes, Viking metal, there is no shortage of diversity in the world of heavy metal. For proof, check out http://www.mapofmetal.com.

2. Heavy metal is satanic.

Yes, some heavy metal bands in the subgenre called black metal are satanic. Perhaps the most serious case is Mayhem, a Norwegian black metal band whose lead singer committed suicide and whose guitarist was murdered by its former bassist. But to decry all heavy metal as satanic and evil is, quite simply, fear-mongering. When any movement gets as big as heavy metal has, there are bound to be deviants on the fringe. But the fact is, most metal bands do not hold satanic beliefs. With lyrics like, “Thanks be to God through Jesus / No condemnation in the Lord / thank you Jesus for saving me,” Antestor and other unblack metal bands prove that not all metal is satanic.

3. Heavy metal has no artistic merit.

Judging music based on its supposed “artistic merit” is a bit like trying to agree on something’s length without standard units of measurement. “Artistic merit” is too subjective a term. Metal music is not simply thoughtless noise-making. In fact, theoretical and technical complexity are two of the lesser known hallmarks of metal. Lots of metal music employs complicated key and tempo changes, borrowing heavily from jazz and classical music. By virtue of metal’s complexity, speed and intensity, virtually all genres of metal demand nothing less than virtuosic musicianship. Furthermore, metal isn’t limited to doom, gloom and anger. Metal can also be about Tolkien-esque fantasy most power metal, overcoming an addiction Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and even mystical out-of-body experiences Mastodon’s “Crack the Skye”.

4. Heavy metal fans are violent and depressed.

Wrong again, metal-haters. According to a recent study by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, metal fans are actually psychologically identical to fans of classical music. “The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and being a danger to themselves and society in general,” North said, “but they are quite delicate things.” It turns out fans of Mozart and Metallica alike tend to be creative, gentle people who are at ease with themselves, not the violent and aggressive delinquents they’re made out to be.

So if you’ve always thought that all metal is evil or looked down on metal as a second-class art, or even if you’re in Ole Orch, give metal a listen. You might just find yourself headbanging along to the beat.

wilder@stolaf.edu

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