Why heavy metal is geekier than you think

The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

I love heavy metal. I love mean riffs, pulverizing drum beats, virtuosic solos, and provocative lyrics that scare conservative churchgoing parents. I’m not quite as singularly obsessed with the genre to feel comfortable self-identifying as a metalhead, but I understand and enjoy the genre enough that I tend to get along well with those who do. Once they talk to me and realize how much I love dorky stuff like comic books, horror movies, and morbid humor, it’s not surprising that I love bands like Iron Maiden, System of a Down, and Metallica. Well, at least ’80s Metallica, and maybe Metallica circa 2008 when Death Magnetic returned them to the thrash metal sound they helped pioneer.

Even though Metallica is one of the most popular artists of any genre on the planet, it still surprises people to learn that I listen to Metallica enough to have strong opinions about them, let alone pay a significant amount of money to see them from the nosebleeds on Mother’s Day in 2017 (thanks for understanding, Mom), with openers Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat. For those who don’t like metal or engage with the fandom at all, I don’t seem like the kind of person who’d touch a Blood Incantation album with a 10-foot pole. My hair is disappearing at an alarming rate short, I have no tattoos nor piercings, and I’ve never been in a real fight.

It’s not just about outward appearances, either. I find heavy metal is a lot like horror in the sense that, to those who aren’t fans of the genre, the appeal can be difficult to parse. This is especially true regarding the extreme subgenres of metal, like the pig squeal vocals and abrasive rhythms of death metal, or ominously slow dirges of doom metal. My preference for “clean” vocals from singers like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie James Dio tends to repel me from the “harsh” vocals of most extreme metal bands, although as of late I’ve begun developing a taste for the tortured screeches of black metal, which combined with the blazingly fast melodies and satanic lyrical content, creates a tantalizingly spooky atmosphere when I’m in the right mood.

I keep bringing up spooks and scares because metal is inextricably rooted in horror. Black Sabbath, arguably the first heavy metal band to embrace the label, was so named because the 1963 Italian horror anthology film of the same name starring Boris Karloff was once showing at a theater across the street from where the rock and roll band then known as “Earth” was rehearsing in 1969. Bassist and principal songwriter Geezer Butler commented on how curious it was that people would pay to scare themselves, which gave them the idea to record scary music. They would soon write a song called “Black Sabbath,” which became the name of their first album as well as the band itself.

Most heavy metal songs are more about the aesthetics of horror than trying to viscerally scare the listener, but more than half a century later, the song that is Black Sabbath’s namesake still has a frightening power. Listen to it – really listen – and tell me Butler’s evocative imagery and young Ozzy Osbourne‘s tortured cry of “oh, no, no, please, God, help me!” doesn’t chill you to the bone.

And yet much like horror movies, the essential camp of heavy metal is too often lost on those who want nothing to do with it. The lyrical subject matter may be preoccupied with death and the devil, and the musicians may look scary in music videos or on stage, but most of the time, it’s all part of the act. I can assure you that the guys in Slipknot aren’t picking up their kids from school dressed like slasher villains, just like Stephen King isn’t watching Red Sox games cosplaying as Pennywise the Clown.

The camp isn’t limited to haunted house vibes, though. Metal has a rich association with all kinds of geeky interests, including sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, and even comic books. For all the tough guy posturing, the people making the music that Christian watchdog groups fear will encourage their children to worship Satan… are mostly nerds (many of whom are classically-trained) who love Lord of the Rings and literal ancient history. Heavy metal can be about a lot of things, but it’s rarely about the mundane.

Forgive me because I can’t find the original quote, but I once read that heavy metal is about staring you in the face and daring you to laugh at it (I believe this was in a review of Metallica’s much-maligned st. Anger). I don’t disagree. One of the great things about metal is its dedication to taking the ridiculous seriously, which often makes it even more hilarious. But that doesn’t mean that, when done right, heavy metal can’t have real, meaningful things to say.

Case-in-point: Switzerland’s Zeal & Ardor, easily my favorite metal band to emerge in the past decade. Led by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneuxthe son of an African-American mother and a Swiss father, Zeal & Ardor puts a literal spin on the black metal subgenre, combining the intense, demonic sound for which the genre is traditionally known with traditional African-American music like soul, blues , and, most crucially, works songs sung by enslaved Americans.

Starting with their first album, Devil is Fine, Gagneux explained that the premise came from asking the question “what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” That album, and its success, Stranger Fruit, do a brilliant job painting a haunting picture of how such a scenario may have played out. The unapologetic blasphemy (“a good god is a dead one / a good god is the one that brings the fire” Gagneux sings on “Blood in the River”) won’t get them invited to open for Stryper anytime soon, but it’s not supposed to be politically correct. Zeal & Ardor is the sound of righteous anger towards centuries of violent, systemic racism that continues to this day. That’s not supposed to sound nice. Heavy metal can be exhilarating in its aggression, but it’s not nice.

This past November, I saw Zeal & Ardor open a co-headliner for Mastodon (one of my other favorite metal bands) and Opeth. I wore the Black Lives Matter shirt that I bought from Black Sabbath’s digital store last year, which is stylized like the logo of their Master of Reality album. I got there early so I could be right at the front for Z&A, and predictably, it was clear that most of the crowd wasn’t there for them. After their blisteringly powerful set, I overheard a man say to his friend “I get it. I get it now.” He looked stunned.

Most of the time when it comes to heavy metal, you either get it or you don’t. If a good heavy riff doesn’t get you going, maybe it never will. But if you don’t think you like metal, I challenge you to try approaching the genre with an open mind, and maybe a different mindset than you would listening to your preferred genres. Don’t listen to it the same way you would if you were seeking music that makes you want to dance, relax, or smooch your romantic partner. Embrace your dark side, your mean side, your silly side, and maybe even your geeky side.

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