On Extreme Metal

The following exchange happened last year while riding in a car with a few of my fantastic coworkers during a business trip…

“Well, I wouldn’t say I hate it, but I certainly can’t say this is my favorite station.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
“He likes heavy metal!”
“Really? Like Eddie Vedder?”
“No, not like Eddie Vedder. And don’t bother, you’re not gonna find it on the radio.”
“Is it like Metallica?”
“No. And it’s not really heavy metal. It’s more like brutal technical death metal.”
“Oh my gosh, like Marilyn Manson?”

I love my coworkers, even when they subject me to reggaeton and hip hop while stuck in dreadful LA traffic. And, it’s not their fault they don’t have the faintest idea what extreme metal is, most people don’t.

I am a metalhead. Collecting vinyl, going to shows, and just reading about and listening to metal is one of my favorite pastimes. Some people find this surprising, and I can see why. But the truth is that at the end of a long day, after the housework is done and the kids have gone to bed, few things are as revitalizing and relaxing to me as picking a record from my stack, throwing on my headphones and sitting in my comfy chair while mindboggling guitar riffs, facemeltingly fast blast beats and unintelligible growling vocals pound into my ears.

The visceral, adrenaline rush of extreme metal is exhilarating. But what really gets me excited is its philosophical side. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good mosh pit as much as any metalhead, but my approach is more academic in nature. In his book, “Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, “Keith Kahn-Harris explains that, “Extreme metal rapidly developed in complexity so that today its apparent unmusicality is the product of carefully made sonic choices and even virtuosity. Far from being a chaotic noise, extreme metal systematically offers transgressive alternatives to the principal elements of western music.” This is the kind of thing that get’s me going; the themes, the sociological implications, the virtuosity, talent, precision and athleticism required to produce this music.

Extreme metal is an umbrella term that covers a multiplicity of subgenres. Black metal, viking metal, death metal, grindcore, doom metal, pagan metal, and symphonic death metal are just a few of the more prevalent ones. I’m very particular about what I consume. Some of these musical forms are infamous for their violent, gory and revolting themes and imagery. I’m not into that, not one bit. If it is disgusting, sexist, or gratuitously violent, it’s not for me. Fortunately, there is a lot of exquisite metal that doesn’t fall under those categories.

Technical (or progressive) death metal is my subgenre of choice, my area of concentration, if you will. It originated in the late 80s and early 90s with bands such as Death, Atheist and Cynic. I like the way Phil Freeman, ex-editor of Metal Edge, describes it as “the hidden side of its genre, having more in common with prog-rock and jazz-fusion than with the mechanistic, Satan-obsessed grinding that’s the music’s dominant public image.”

There are a great number of tech-death bands all over the world, but some of my very favorites (Gorguts, Beyond Creation, Unhuman and Archspire) come from Canada. One of my favorite albums of the past couple of years is “Colored Sands,” by Gorguts. This is a concept album that explores and recounts the plight of the people of Tibet. Visually and lyrically, this album employs Buddhist themes and motifs. Musically, the oppressive and at times desolate tenor of the songs is a perfect palette to paint the story of a people oppressed and subdued. This album is truly a masterpiece and it made all of the top lists for metal releases last year.

What? Buddhism and death metal?! Yes, that is correct. When you read the lyrics (and you’re going to have to, if you want to know what they’re saying), you will find that progressive death metal is not about Satan, drugs and rock’n’roll. Some of the themes these bands write about are mysticism, philosophy, polemology, and science fiction. You may want to have some reference books handy! This is a scene that takes the music seriously. Blood Music, a vinyl club and music label with which I have a membership, describe themselves as, “An organization dedicated to the anthropological and cultural preservation of extreme metal music.”

There are many other musical genres I rather enjoy, jazz and sacred music, for instance. But no other music affects me as deeply, on an emotional and visceral level. And these are some of my thoughts on extreme metal for the time being.

Left: My happy place. Right: With Luc Lemay of Gorguts.

Left: My happy place. // Right: With Luc Lemay of Gorguts.

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