Monday, July 23, 2007

Metal: Why I Listen

I am what some people might call an intellectual, which means - in this case - that I enjoy contemplating ideas and experiences. I also happen to enjoy writing about those contemplations, which is why this blog - and another on a different topic - exist, albeit within the confines of their respective topical spheres. One of the things I think about on a regular basis is why I listen to metal, a line of thinking that I like to think has more in common with "is there a God?" than "am I a meat head for listening to this type of music?" In other words, my motivation stems from natural curiosity about the depths of self than from lack of confidence about my perceptions in the eyes of others.

A couple of weeks ago, when looking for a picture to anoint one particular post, I came across an article entitled "The Philosophy of Heavy Metal," published by the American Nihilist Underground Society. I read the article with interest and do intend to write a response to its ideas at some point in the near future, but today when clicking around the site I came across a passage that struck me. From "History of Heavy Metal Music and the Heavy Metal Subculture":
Its primary distinguishing characteristic is that metal embraces structure more than any other form of popular music; while rock is notorious for its verse-chorus-verse structure and jazz emphasizes a looser version of the same allowing unfetter improvisation, metal emphasizes a motivic, melodic narrative structure in the same way that classical and baroque music do. Each piece may utilize other techniques, but what holds it together is a melodic progression between ideas that do not fit into simple verse-chorus descriptors. Even in 1960s proto-heavy metal, use of motives not repeated as part of the verse-chorus cycle and transitional riffing suggested a poetic form of music in which song structure was derived from what needed to be communicated.
The writing is a little obtuse and the tone more than a little arrogant, but the idea of metal being pop music's answer to classical music jumped out at me and made me wonder if the above paragraph contained the underpinnings of my metalheadom.

It's something I've explored a bit in the past: a love of music is one of the fundamental binders of my mother's family and my parents did their best to inculcate me with the value of classical music from a very young age. Perhaps in response, I did my best to tie my respect for classic music and my love for popular music together into my college thesis (further demonstration of how much time I've spent thinking about these ideas), where I tried to parse the history of progressive metal; i.e., metal in the form where it most apes classical music. Whether or not I succeeded is a question for another time, but looking back I can see the appeal: classical music had practically become part of my genetic material, but all the same, it did not appeal to me on the fundamental, motivational level I craved. Rock music created that motivational drive, but could not answer my need for narrative flow. At its best, metal fulfills both needs and thus I listen.

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