Just a quick entry to bring attention to a fun post on Invisible Oranges that also offers some food for thought on the lyrical nature of extreme music. Friday’s article on “Death Metal English” codifies several of the features common to death metal lyrics: at a basic level, it’s common for bands in this genre to employ verbosity in their choice of vocabulary, phrasing and grammar. Not all death metallers do so, of course, but enough of the foundational groups of the genre (Carcass, Nile and Morbid Angel are some of the bigger names identified) wrote lyrics in this self-consciously complex style that they ended up influencing a great number of musicians in the current movement to follow suit.
This isn’t automatically a bad thing, of course. Death metal is similar to most extreme music in that the lyrics are often an afterthought, or at least secondary to the complex musical backing. But it does take skill and dedication to craft words that honour the distinctive, not particularly naturalistic, style of your musical forebears, while still making room for your own flashes of individuality. Choosing to work within sometimes strict genre boundaries is not automatically less valid than eschewing all of those boundaries in the quest for originality. It’s not as though all examples of Death Metal English are po-faced attempts at profundity, either. The IO article has fun demonstrating how the most mundane of activities can be made metal by translating them into this lyrical style, and it’s a good bet that most writers working within this lyrical straightjacket have their tongues firmly in cheek. As long as the musicians and the audience are having fun, what’s the problem?
I do wonder, however, if the prevalence of this wordy, ponderous style restricts the music’s ability to handle topics outside of the standard Satanic and gore-soaked tropes. Obviously, although I’ve made it clear that I’d like to see more socially and politically conscious lyrics in extreme music, it’s not the case that any band has to sing about anything other than what it wants to. And attracting more mainstream attention by compromising on lyrical content would be anathema to most death metallers. As the IO article cheekily notes, “(w)riting lyrics that make grammatical and substantive sense is not sufficiently off-putting and obscurantist for some bands”; given that being alienating to the mainstream is a central part of the metal identity, it seems counter-intuitive to ask groups to reformulate their lyrics for easier digestion. All I would suggest is that, as fun as Death Metal English can be to work with, it would be a shame if musicians felt it was a genre feature they had no choice but to include, especially since a conscious choice to use more direct lyrics, or themes rooted more in real-life concerns, might help them to stand out from the pack.