Reinventing the Steel: A three-part discussion of how extreme metal could reinvigorate itself through explicit ideological engagement with feminism
Part 1: Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses
If you’d asked a metalhead thirty years ago about the chances of their music gaining critical acceptance in the mainstream, they’d probably have laughed in your face. But especially in the last five years or so, more and more media outlets have started paying serious attention to the genre. Pitchfork and other music sites are profiling underground metal in monthly or weekly columns, and amongst their general reviews. The UK’s NME magazine recently ran a retrospective on the history of black metal. Norwegian cultural diplomats are reportedly receiving instruction on that very history- once controversial for its connections to church burnings and murders, black metal is now officially recognised as one of the country’s cultural exports1. This attention hasn’t necessarily resulted in heavy bands swarming the pop charts, but at certain publications at least, metal is no longer considered a joke among “serious” reviewers.
Perhaps because of this increased critical acceptance, however, heavy metal no longer seems to conjure the same fear and panic in mainstream media and moral majority types that it did in the 1980s. The irony is that as the subgenres of death metal, black metal and grindcore have created ever more “extreme” aural templates, metal seems to inspire less and less opposition among religious and political leaders. 80’s bands like Judas Priest and Venom can sound tame compared to the extremity on offer today, yet they inspired greater moral panic among parents, priests and politicians than say, Eric Danielsson’s endorsement of terrorist acts in the name of his band Watain2.
This is only really true in a European and American context, of course. As Invisible Oranges’ recent series of articles on metal in Africa reports, Middle Eastern metalheads still regularly face police harassment and accusations of Satanism. Their subculture is apparently still sufficiently threatening to religious and political authorities to lead to repression3. But in an increasingly secular Western world, metal no longer shocks the way it used to.
It’s probably a good thing that our society has grown up enough to no longer be shocked by metal’s anti-religious, anti-establishment themes. If metal is still largely seen as music for outsiders and weirdos, at least it’s no longer considered actively dangerous. But isn’t part of metal’s draw the hostility it provokes in authority figures? The sense of belonging to a countercultural movement opposed to the bland trappings of (post-) modernity, that offers real power in its ability to shock and frighten? Extremity is pretty much the genre’s raison d’etre: “In its earliest stages, metal takes the extremity of rebellion further than either rock or punk and weds it to the grotesque, the bizarre and the violent. Metal is not content with a two fingered salute(;) it frequently seeks to alienate, indeed it seeks coherence in alienation”4. Alienating mainstream society with extremity, and finding common purpose with those who can appreciate that extremity, is at the core of the metal identity. Many metalheads, fans and musicians alike, lament a seeming loss of purpose and direction now that the music inspires more indifference than indignation. If we care about metal for its potential to offer a real alternative to dominant cultural and media norms, this is an important issue. For me at least, the important questions are these: why has metal lost its ability to shock? And what can it do to regain a sense of danger?
Satan is boring: metal’s diminishing returns
Heavy metal emerged in a specific cultural context. Amidst the hippy-dippy trappings of the 60s summer of love, a dark potency was brewing. Influenced by the same blues music as more established rock artists, bands like Black Sabbath differentiated themselves from your Creams and your Beatles through a willingness to tackle “dark” subjects that pop music had never really dealt with before, as much as their “heavier”, distorted guitar sound. Satanic imagery (“Black Sabbath”), the horrors of war (“War Pigs”) drug abuse (“Hand of Doom”) and depressed, pessimistic attitudes (“Paranoid”); these were genuinely shocking at the time, for their novelty as well as their opposition to prevailing cultural norms. Dark themes were reflected in doomy, minor-key riffs, although early metal’s tethering to the blues and 60s psychedelia meant there was still room for good-time rocking out as well.
If you mine any vein of inspiration for over 40 years, though, creative exhaustion is inevitable. The mere presence of dark and disturbing themes is no longer enough on its own to shock and unsettle. This is down to overexposure, but also changing social circumstances. The prevailing political mood in an age of economic downturn is one of cynicism, pessimism and distrust of authority. By entering the mainstream, the anti-authoritarian attitude underpinning metal has been co-opted. The gradual collapse in the West of the traditional religious basis for moral order means that Satanic or anti-religious themes, while still encountering resistance in certain quarters, are no longer perceived as a direct affront to the fabric of society.
Internal aspects of metal subculture have also contributed to this stagnation. The fantastical, horror-based trappings of certain bands’ music and lyrics inspired fear in the past, but especially these days they are also easy to dismiss as juvenile. Just as horror movies were held responsible for moral decay in the 80s heyday of “video nasties” but now mostly face indifference, gory lyrics, cover art and stage presentation are largely written off as the immature obsessions of individual horror nerds, not an existential threat to the fabric of society.
There is also the issue of a certain traditionalism within metal subcultures, rooted in a desire to remain true to the spirit and intentions of the genre’s forbears. It’s certainly admirable to want to maintain a continuity with those who came before you, to share a connection with a worldwide movement of musicians and fans through the use of shared symbols, themes and musical approaches. This sense of a common purpose, a mutual appreciation for what metal can offer, is part of the camaraderie that, somewhat paradoxically, is very strong in a movement with a highly individualist credo. But this can often manifest in a resistance to innovation within the movement. A certain subset of fans express distaste or even hostility toward bands that step outside narrow parameters of what it means to be truly “metal”, particularly in heated internet debates. It’s easy to understand the disdain for ill-conceived attempts to cross over with other genres for largely commercial reasons; nu-metal is the obvious example here. But this often results in hostility towards any change in a band’s sound over time, or towards musicians bringing in outside influences that could re-energise the genre creatively.
This might explain the popularity of decidedly retro-oriented metal from the mid-2000s onwards. In particular, mid-80s thrash was a common reference point for many bands; the best, such as Municipal Waste, updated a vintage sound for a modern era and injected a burst of energy and self-consciously goofy humour that was hard not to enjoy. But while all metal subgenres have relied on inspiration from earlier bands, it is difficult to identify a contemporary movement that represents as large an innovation as, say, early 90s black metal. It’s easy to get the sense that, rather than welcoming a metal scene with room for both traditional and innovative sounds, some metalheads would be happier if all bands endlessly reformulated past classics.
An entry on the Post-Zeitgeist blog identifies the problem with this unthinking adherence to reproducing the “brutal” sounds of past bands we enjoy: “if there is a problem with extremity, it is due to an absence of reflection. Unreflexive extremity is essentially a form of violence, a string of actions with accelerating intensity occurring regardless of the context (people, environment, society) which it is situated”5. If we don’t temper extremity with reflection, we endlessly repeat a cycle of aural violence.
The most stinging rebuke to this backwards-looking tendency comes from one of the very bands which pioneered death metal in the first place. On Carcass’ 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel, vocalist Jeff Walker articulates contempt for this lack of imagination and adherence to increasingly empty genre rehashing in “Non-Compliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard”:
“Artistically moribund/ Soulless ghosts of the underground/ By the past you are bound”… “The cycle of death exhausted, well and truly played/ A terminal malaise that you so feverishly savour”.
Towards a politically engaged heavy music
So what’s the solution to this malaise? How can metal reaffirm its status as a countercultural movement, and become dangerous and vital again? I believe the answer is the creation of heavy music that exhibits the kind of reflective, thoughtful relationship with extremity mentioned in the Post-Zeitgeist piece. Specifically, where extremity is directly employed alongside explicit political goals and ideological vision, to present a genuine alternative to the sociopolitical dominance of neoliberal modernity, rather than a retreat into anti-social nihilism.
Very often within metal subcultures (and the wider world), people can be dismissive toward the idea of explicitly political music. This ties in to a general political apathy among both young and old, the idea that it’s all boring and doesn’t really relate to our everyday lives. Specific complaints in relation to politicised music are that artistic vision is compromised by adherence to ideology, that stilted, empty sloganeering is often the result of an attempt at consciousness. Sometimes, of course, this is true. But the assertion that politics and political music doesn’t relate to everyday life is a false one. As the slogan goes, the personal is the political; and conversely, the political is personal. I would argue that political topics in music are far more relevant than cartoon gore or self-isolating occultism, and have greater potential to revitalise the genre.
The criticism of politicised music also ignores the numerous sterling examples of politically engaged metal bands and songs, which can provide audiences with intellectual fuel as well as headbanging material. In particular, two of last year’s best metal albums- Liberteer’s Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live On Your Knees and Panopticon’s Kentucky– offer a demonstration of the transcendental and inspirational possibilities of politically engaged metal. Upon release, similarities were drawn between the albums due to their use of traditional instruments (banjo, mandolin, horns etc) and weaving of non-metal musical forms into their tapestries: Liberteer blends short and sweet grindcore with Communist propaganda and marching music to create a flowing metal symphony, while Panopticon melds the seemingly incompatible genres of black metal and Appalachian bluegrass into a stirring evocation of rural Americana.
The two releases differ significantly in their approach to political engagement, however. Liberteer is more direct and polemical, seeking to inspire listeners toward armed revolution and anarchist forms of co-operation and organisation. Some sloganeering is present (just look at the title), but there is also room to dissect radical ideas such as the nature of power itself (“It Is the Secret Curse of Power That It Becomes Fatal”). The album’s music itself was also specifically designed with political goals in mind. In an interview with Pitchfork, the band’s creative mastermind and sole performer Matt Widener discussed how he sought to subvert the nihilistic attitude of much grindcore, and create a positive-minded alternative, through the music itself:
‘Take the typical socio-political grindcore album, and what do you hear? Pure rage, heaps of alienation. At best, it can rally the young. I remember being a teenager and driven to mosh purely by brutal riffs. But to me anarchy isn’t about anger or alienation; it’s an optimistic and humane idea, so using typical grindcore riffs didn’t make sense. That’s why half the album is written in major keys, which are never used in grind. If you’re describing an autopsy or dwelling on dire socio-political topics, you’re trying to offend, shock. But when you’re trying to rally, to inspire? I think it makes me realize that even the most political of grind bands don’t have an answer to any of the problems they present. They’re only trying to throttle people into awareness. Liberteer is poised to come afterward. Like: “Hey, there’s hope, let’s talk about how it might look if we chose a different way.”‘6
Kentucky, by comparison, is less overt. It reveals its politics most clearly in the old folk songs it covers, standards of the workers’ movements in the early 20th century. Serving a similar purpose are the samples throughout the record that illustrate the history of coal mining in the titular state; the most affecting of these is an extended recording of an elderly miner discussing the conditions of exploitation and abuse that led him into the workers’ movement and political organisation, in order to achieve the lofty goal of a pay raise to 8 cents an hour.
The overall scope of the album is a historical examination of the effect that the coal industry has had- not just on workers’ lives, but on the environment around them. It’s a welcome reminder that areas of the American South considered “redneck” and unfailingly conservative have roots in a not-so-distant past of radicalism and working class solidarity. It’s an intimate, detailed portrait of one specific site of political and ideological engagement, tied to an explicit evocation of time and place. Where Liberteer is strident and polemical, Panopticon is introspective and discursive. Both approaches have much to recommend them, and they demonstrate the wide variety of possibilities within the category of “politicised music”. It need not mean directly penning a musical manifesto for revolution- it can be enough just to let a specific political issue inform your lyrics or theme.
Not all metal has to aspire to a deeper meaning than making you want to wreck someone’s shit in the mosh pit. Sometimes it’s exhausting to listen to music that demands you work your brain at the same time as banging your head; sometimes the aural equivalent of a gory horror film is all that will suffice. And there’s nothing wrong with bands who dedicate themselves solely to creating the music they want to listen to. But if more bands were presenting music related to real life concerns, with informed passion and political acuity behind it, it could help to reignite metal as a cultural force presenting a real challenge to mainstream culture.
Aren’t there already a lot of heavy bands with political lyrics and anti-establishment attitudes?, you might ask. Certainly. But I would argue that, although metal champions rebellion against the status quo, the underlying structure of its music and subcultures is closely connected to the dominant patriarchal paradigms of wider culture and society. Until we understand and begin to challenge these connections, it can’t serve as a site for resistance against the mainstream. In the following posts on this theme, I want to examine metal’s relation to patriarchal power, and posit an ideology that could reconfigure heavy music to effectively oppose that power: intersectional feminism.