Heavy Metal is a lot like scotchHeavy Metal is a lot like scotch. To the inexperienced drinker, a quick shot will surely induce severe and comical choking and gagging, followed by a desperate gasp for fresh air. To the drinker who has sampled the world's various liqueurs, beer and spirits however, it becomes one of the most complex, rich and warm things you can partake of.
Now I am in no way condoning, nor encouraging the free and rapid consumption of multiple alcoholic beverages, but the idea still sticks. Heavy Metal is a difficult thing to understand, and few truly do. To the untrained ear and a quick-to-judge eye, Heavy Metal is a raucous, ridiculous form of music populated with overly macho guys dressed in leather and ripped jeans, cranking out ear-splitting guitar riffs and panic-inducing anthems of noise. To the seasoned musician however, Heavy Metal becomes a multi-layered symphony of technical precision with an unflinching dedication towards crafting some deeply passionate music.
To understand Heavy Metal, the listener must resist the temptation to do the first instinctual thing: classify it. The term "Heavy Metal" is in actuality a very generic label for an entire musical tree of sub genres. Behind its crypt-like doors lies traditional rock n' roll, glam metal, pop metal, death metal, black metal, doom metal, industrial, and power metal (to name a few). For those uncertain of where to start, it is generally best to think about what you like to hear most: melody versus power, or naked aggression versus traditional chord progression. Indeed, some of the more extreme forms of Heavy Metal will probably not hook the average music lover on a first listen.
Heavy Metal is the symphony of our day. It bypasses the desire for extreme fame and fortune that is found in mainstream music, and in that simple movement manages to allow each band to focus on the music itself, and the passion behind it. It is not bound by the rules of the mainstream record labels which force a band to put out songs at radio-friendly, 3:30 second running times, whilst maintaining the mundane sound adherent to that very same approach. Indeed, where 60s pop music gave rise to hard rock, so too did hard rock give birth to Heavy Metal. Ironic is the reality that mainstream music has been watered down to such a great degree in the new millennium.
Metal is not a radio-friendly genre. This is both a blessing and a curse to its talented pool of musicians, as a lack of mainstream exposure means significantly less record sales and popularity. It does unlock a treasure chest of possibilities however, in the form of extended song lengths, more technically diverse compositions, and a genuine motivation towards crafting new and exciting sounds. Where mainstream music tends to follow one of three structural "templates" (the dystopian alternative rocker ballad, the melancholy piano-driven softy, or the cookie-cutter R&B dance track) Heavy Metal can instead focus on time and pacing switch ups, odd time signatures, dueling guitar solos or twin-rhythm guitar attack, and furious expert-level drumming. Even the musicians themselves are painfully dedicated to their art. Metal bands do not have lavish tour buses for private jets, or a concierge of folks attending to their every need and demand. Instead, Metal musicians are truly the working class of the music world. They tour for very little actual money (most times actually taking a loss), and they tour often. Mainstream musicians forced to accept the same low-profile terms as Metal musicians would undoubtedly pack it in within the first week. Similarly, the differences in record sales are striking, but encouraging. Metal bands will gladly accept a much lower profile and status than mainstream bands, purely for dedication towards, and love of their work.
But what of Heavy Metal's content? The Metal of the 80s heyday frequently rocked about incessant, prison-inducing partying binges, wild sex with multiple partners, and hedonistic rioting all on a grand scale. Even underground thrash and death metal bands from the time period were focused very deeply on death and all of the (un)marvelous methods in which to achieve it. For the most part, Heavy Metal was a budding teenager during the time of the early 90s, unsure of its place within the world. The cloud of alternative and grunge music that soared in above Heavy Metal in 1992 managed to dethrone it, and send it into a proverbial abyss. During that time, there was a talk of Heavy Metal's stagnation within the music world, and for all intents and purposes, those naysayers were pretty much correct. The music had stagnated, and a change was in order. Grunge's short-lived reign soon gave way to alternative, and from alternative we have reached the apex of mainstream rock in our present day. The results have been far from pretty. The same musical stagnation that plagued Heavy Metal at the close of the 80s has fully taken a cancerous root in every single mainstream sub genre from rock, to R&B, to rap. Metal has managed to arise anew, with a fresh new sonic palette that sounds more diversified than ever. It has grown up into a full-fledged, intelligent and mature adult that is ready to expand its own horizons.
Lyrically, Heavy Metal has mostly concentrated on socio-political issues, while concentrating in a cynical matter on humankind's ability to do harm to itself, and the world around it. While the traditional theme hasn't gone away, it is punctured by an increasingly positive message to its listeners. Even such extreme death metal bands as Arch Enemy have eschewed a nihilistic and bleak message for one of positive combat and uprising to the woes of society and life. Whilst many a Heavy Metal band can certainly be blamed for promoting naked aggression, anger and violence, it is far more likely to find that the vast majority of Metal bands today are looking at bleakness and violence from a non-participatory standpoint, or making a stand against it altogether. The same cannot be said of mainstream rap, which glamorizes violent actions and lifestyle choices outright. Still, Heavy Metal has been consistently demonized down through the years, in an increasingly unfair manner.
With so many wonderful bands joining the Metal scene, now is definitely the time to start exploring the genre. The music is extremely loud, and terribly powerful, which may scare off potential listeners. But for those willing to withstand the sonic tidal wave, there is music of varying levels of intensity for everybody to enjoy, as well as a wonderful substitute for the bland, uninspired drudgery that has dominated today's FM wavelength.
Written by Derek Puzak