Objectivism has wiggled it’s way into all human endeavors and even heavy metal music has not escaped the clutches of it’s dogma.
In a recent interview Brent Hinds of Mastodon made a statement in which he claimed that heavy metal pioneers Judas Priest are not, nor ever were, a heavy metal band. I would guess that a lot of people might agree with him, mostly younger metalheads. However I don’t think this generational gap is defined so much by style as how the definition of heavy metal began to change in the 1980’s.
Before I get to that, however, although I think Mastodon is a great band and admire Brent’s heavy metal hijinks, I would consider them to be a far less metal band than Priest. Mastodon are a very metal prog rock band. And that’s okay.
The essential question is – what makes music ‘heavy’ and what makes it ‘metal’?
The ‘metal’ part is pretty easy and can be broken into two main categories.
Defiance, rebelliousness, unusual curiosity, darkness of worldview and humor; and most of all irreverence. Whether snarky strikes of combativeness or stone cold shoulders of passive aggression, metal doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. It has plenty of its own, fuck you.
At the same time most metalheads are open-minded, fun-loving people with lots of love and humor, especially among their own where they are accepted non-judgmentally for their singular passion for the metal lifestyle.
The metal attitude is not aggression, even though it appears that way. It is a hyperbolistic defense mechanism. The metal spikes on the black leather jacket, like the spines of a porcupine, protect a tender, vulnerable human being from the surface-dwelling norms all around them.
This gives the safety to self-explore. To think more deeply and to feel more deeply. To dig beneath the exterior world of frivolous lightness into one of their own existential heaviness.
Objective facts are the parts of a phenomena that can be observed and measured in some way, then reobserved and remeasured with consistent results.
In metal music of all types there are some elements that are often, but not always, present. Speed, distortion, volume, anti-authoritarianism, Satanism and the occult, themes of darkness and evil, bombastic performance and presentation, musical virtuosity…among others. These are objective qualities within metal music, of which there must always be at least a few present in order to be accepted as metal by the genres fans.
However there is one further attribute of metal that cannot be fully denied – it is fueled by raw masculine energies.
Somewhere between the new wave of British heavy metal and Metallica there began to be sort of competitive drive to become more metal than anyone else. It got louder, faster and far more ‘evil’.
Over the next decade the metal one-upping led to a division of metal into an ever-branching tree of sub-genres. From this came speed metal and death metal and black metal and a number of other genres who picked a few of those objective qualities and focused all their efforts on expanding on them.
A decade after that metal had been reduced to the objective qualities found within it. Every sub-genre was a _______-metal band and in all the musical measurements that divided them something had been lost.
It is not quite so easy to define what heaviness is. It cannot be objectively observed or measured. It is not even an attribute of the music or performers, but of the relationship between them and the listener. It is an effect that cannot be perceived or predicted.
There is the famous Ozzy quote about how puzzling it was to consider San Francisco and people who were obliged to wear floral cranial ornamentation while visiting that enchanted land. For Black Sabbath the grey skies and industrial totality of their lives could not prepare them for such a sunny worldview. And in their music you can hear, nay feel, the very environment in which they had been formed.
It is not Ozzy singing about Satan’s love life that made Black Sabbath heavy in a way that had never been heard before. It was not the loudness, the distortion or occult that made first time listeners connect with their heaviness. It was their ability to musically express things about themselves and their lives which could drag you directly into their world. It was music that was, like Mozart and Wagner before them, transcendent beyond description.
Heaviness, therefore, could be considered a nexus where the emotional and spiritual meet to produce profound responses in the listener. But you cannot do that on purpose. You have to be that, genuinely, and then be lucky enough to translate it sonically and have it connect with the right people.
Metal is something you can try at. It is something that can be quantified and then imitated. Anybody can make metal music. Very few make heavy music. And not all of it, in fact most of it, is not even metal.
I am not a metal fan, I am a heavy metal fan. I am not interested in note per minute stats or which black metal artist has most appeased Lucifer. I am interested in transcendent experience and the creative works that can get me there.
Black Sabbath gets me there. Some Judas Priest even gets me there, or at least did at some point in my life. Mastodon fucking rock, but they have never made me feel transcendent. I don’t think that is their goal, either. They are fantasy prog metal. They are industrial bards with more connections to modern literature than shamanism. They look great with one foot on the monitor and the stage fans in their hair, washed out in an orgiastic carpet bombing of stage lights. And that may be metal as fuck, but there is nothing heavy about it.
There is a larger point here. Heavy metal is not the only area of modern life in which an obsessive-compulsive focus on objectivity has blinded us from the heaviness of our own existence. We have become lazy thinkers, content to dwell on the surface of a literal world we can observe and measure and feel righteous having the final answers for.
Objectivity has wounded our humanity with a delusional pride that we can enjoy exclusive access to a reality that lies outside of our own experience of it. It is a religiously dogmatic attachment to an ideal world that our subjective human experience cannot independently verify with something unquestionably objective.
The same kind of human tendency towards reductionism and oversimplification that turned a concept as complex as God into an angry sky patriarch has turned our modern view of the universe into a meaningless clockwork we are here to experience for no reason whatsoever.
And it also make people think Lamb of God are heavy, rather than what they really are, which is attached with adolescent zeal to the hyperbole of their clockwork, cookie-cutter noise. Jussayin’.