In order to round out my thinking about music as I lurch toward the end of my current work-in-progress, I ordered and received three works on heavy metal last week. Ian Christe's Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, Deena Weinstein's Heavy Metal: The Music And Its Culture, and Robert Walser's Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music are essential for understanding a musical genre in dire need of a more respectful apologia than one normally finds in mainstream critical and academic circles.
More than the other two works, Walser is correct in noting that both musically and lyrically, heavy metal has deep roots in the African-American musical tradition that spawned the overarching framework of western popular music that, for lack of a better word, we can call rock. Whether the acoustic Delta blues of Robert Johnson or the urban, electrified blues of Muddy Waters, the tradition has more than flirted with the topics of death, evil, and even social injustice. One can criticize heavy metal for many things; somehow inventing or even praising the occult (except, perhaps, in specific subgenres like Black Metal) is not one of them. There is a straight enough line, I think between Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound On My Trail" and the eponymous "Black Sabbath":
I am not a "metal head" by any means, but I do enjoy the music. Which is perhaps a mild reaction to such an extreme musical style. All the same, I do not consider myself a "fan" of heavy metal any more than I consider myself a fan of progressive rock, of classic rock, of jazz, of Mozart, or anything else. Heavy metal fills an aesthetic need for the expression of sheer pandemonium and aggression. Just as a quiet Saturday morning feels more complete with Pat Metheny or Miles Davis playing in the background, or Sunday afternoons seem tailor-made for Mozart and Brahms, so, too, do certain moments cry out for something a bit more rousing than Bruce Springsteen.
That the style is over the top in pretty much every way imaginable goes without saying. That one could say the same about moments in western art music, from Bach through contemporary composers like Steve Reich rarely gets mentioned.
In terms both of style and approach, heavy metal has infiltrated much of popular music, from hip-hop artists sampling heavy metal songs to the really big beat and overwhelming sound of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" (a title that would not seem out of place on a heavy metal album).
As different as it may be, Porcupine Tree's "Fear Of A Blank Planet" wouldn't have been possible without the musical influence of heavy metal (something auteur Steven Wilson is honoring this year with a musical project he is finally completing with Michael Akerfeldt, leader of the Swedish death metal band Opeth).
Even the use of occult imagery exists in multiple tensions. Whether the mindlessness of the British band Venom, or the seriousness of bands like Deicide, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Mayhem, and Emperor, the best guide through the thickets may well be the San Francisco band Slayer who used the iconography from the occult as a way of creating a dialectical understanding between the rage induced by injustice and oppression and the desire for vengeance and retribution that one can find through various occult practices, without ever once falling in to a literal reading. Slayer is, without a doubt, one of the more intelligent bands out there, as well as musically gifted.
The need for catharsis extends beyond the merely emotional. In the extreme environment provided by heavy metal, many living in repressive regimes find in the volume, the speed, and the rage at the heart of heavy metal a way to stand against those political forces that seek to stifle their expression. Rammstein formed in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I am amused by people who criticize jazz, say, or various kinds of pop without having any experience with the style. For some reason, few people feel any reason to actually listen to heavy metal before denouncing it. If they actually experienced it, letting themselves go for the length of a song at first, then perhaps an album, perhaps (if one were brave enough) going to a show, one might find, if nothing else, the exhilaration of emotional release to be satisfying.
If my imaginary band could provide even a single moment as full of the musical, emotional, social, and cultural meaning as the following performance by Metallica, I think I would have achieved something.