Pariahs And Extremes: Two Books On Heavy Metal Subgenres

Surely the line-blurring and inspired musical richness that has happened to metal, partly thanks to progressive rock’s influence, is occurring in reverse with prog rock. The two black sheep genres have shared commonalities for a long time – it’s only natural that they should be strange and very compatible bedfellows at this stage. – Jeff Wagner, Mean Deviations: Four Decades Of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010), p. 333

Death metal traditionally has been about pushing boundaries and being heavy and dark-sounding with its very own style of usually low pitched vocals. As long as all of the aforementioned are present in the music, it can sagely be categorized as death metal, and remaining true to the style’s origins. – Necrophagist guitarist Muhammed Suicmez, quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal & Grind Core, 2d edition, (2016), p. 322

British Death Metal pioneers Carcass in concert

Every once in a while, mostly out of some sense of duty, I’ll try to sit and listen to opera. I suppose just listening to opera isn’t the same as seeing opera. All the same, I’ll give it a go. I always end up in the same place. This is unlistenable. I have nothing against people who enjoy opera. Much like those people for whom Elvis Costello is some master of music, an opinion I don’t share, I accept that there are people who find beauty in opera.

I don’t.

And it’s not because I don’t like orchestral music. Opera doesn’t move me. The sounds aren’t agreeable. The vocal style is ridiculously overwrought. The whole and the parts that make up that whole just aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t consider this a moral failing any more that I believe those who do find much to love in opera are bad or wrong for doing so.

For some reason, people who enjoy styles of music that, for whatever reason, are labeled as pariahs or extreme, get labeled as bad people. There isn’t a single fan, say, of Fates Warning or Cannibal Corpse who would believe for one moment their music has, or at least should have, mass appeal. Those like me who hear in these very different kinds of music something beautiful, something sublime, something energizing aren’t bad people. Nor do we suffer from some kind of egregious lack of taste; on the contrary, fans understand precisely what the music is and what it does for them. Check out any web forum or Facebook page for any band labeled either prog metal or death metal and you’ll probably find lengthy discussions of the music qua music. They get it.

Heavy metal as a musical style has been around since the late-1960’s/early-1970’s. Very early, bands so labeled differed from one another in sound pallet, style, instrumentation, and songs. I cannot imagine two bands more different than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Although both are firmly rooted in American blues, there is little that unites them musically. Yet both are called “heavy metal”, although (funny enough) both refuse the label. Adding in bands as varied as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and later Motorhead, it became clear very early on that, as a style, heavy metal meant pretty much whatever the person using it wanted it to mean. From the start, then, the basic form – loud, heavily distorted guitars; heavy drumming (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath points out the only thing “heavy” about Led Zeppelin was John Bomham’s unsubtle drumming); non-traditional subject matter (most heavy metal songs aren’t about the usual boy-meets-girl) – could be used as a launching pad to create a variety of sounds. As malleable as the blues, heavy metal offered both musicians and fans exciting opportunities to experiment, push the envelope, be louder and faster and write songs about anything under the sun, from rage against political folly (Napalm Death) through the horrors of the Holocaust (Slayer’s “Angel of Death”) to a variety of spiritual quests (Morbid Angel’s early flirtations with Satanism; Pain of Salvation’s Be album). Through in a heavy dose of gore and violence (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and an overweaning sense of dread and even horror (use of augmented 4th chords, diminished 9ths, and other dissonant chordal structures), combined with impressive musical skill, and Metal and its various sprigs and sprouts offer something for everyone.

As long as you’re willing to pay the entry fee.

The fee includes setting to one side one’s expectations of what the word music means, or should mean. In particular, one needs to set to one side the notion we are dealing with some aberrant form of “pop” music. While rooted in the blues and owing much to rock’s 60’s experimentalisms, heavy metal is as distinct from rock as house music is from rhythm and blues. Another part of the fee is allowing oneself to feel as well as think about what you’re hearing. Prog metal, death metal, black metal – these are musics first and foremost about the feelings they arouse both in musicians and listeners. Whether rage or sublimity, power or serenity, you need to let the music open you up to feeling. At the same time, these various styles of music insist you think about what you’re hearing. While you’re hearing it. There is something that, should you let it, pulls you in and insists that you listen, really listen, to what you’re hearing. Active listening involves considering both the parts and the larger whole they produce.

Finally, probably the biggest hurdle most people who aren’t into these styles of music find impossible to overcome is the vocal style. While many progressive metal bands, from “The Big Three” Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, to Sieges Even and Nightwish still use what’s called “clean” singing, part of death metal’s trademark is screamed or deep guttural vocals, epitomized in the impossible-to-understand George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. Corpsegrinder’s vocals are more over-the-top than standard issue death metal vocalists. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, Carcass’s Jeff Walker, Arch Enemy’s Angela Gassow and Alissa White-Gluz, and Opeth’s Michael Akerfeldt, while either screaming or grunting, are still understandable once you accept this is the way the music sounds. Sitting and feeling and listening and thinking pretty quickly makes it clear the vocal style fits the rest of the music exactly. Just as the quasi-operatic singing of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie fits with Prog Metal’s style.

Mean Deviation and Choosing Death are both histories of very different – yet still occasionally overlapping – style of music. Both consider the musics under consideration to have deep histories Mean Deviation takes the roots of Prog Metal back to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album; Choosing Death, a more narratively-structured work, begins with the proto-grindcore of the pre-Napalm Death band Discharge, with their rejection of punk’s boring sameness in the mid- to late-1980’s. Thorough, encyclopedic without ever losing the reader’s attention, the books offer a journey across rarely-trod musical landscapes. While die-hard fans might quibble about this or that particular band being included while one of their favorites is excluded (one of the oddities of the fandoms of both progressive metal and death metal is the extreme boundary policing they perform, excluding all sorts of bands and music due to arbitrary, often nonsensical, rules). While he receives mention in both books, I have to say I was disappointed avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn and his band Naked City aren’t discussed at all. I also thought the distinction between prog metal as an approach to music and Prog Metal as descriptive of the far-too-many Dream Theater clones (Shadow Gallery and Symphony X are the two most well-known) was important, but took up just a little too much space. Honoring the weirdness of Canada’s Voivod, Texas’s Watchtower, Florida’s Atheist, and Germany’s Sieges Even, however, was more than welcome. Richmond Virginia’s Lamb of God, self-described “pure American Death Metal” isn’t mentioned at all, despite both their popularity and inventiveness.

These are minor quibbles. Both books offer both the die-hard fan, the regular fan, and even someone not at all familiar with either musical style or scenes, comprehensiveness, an openness to the varieties that exist under each heading, while still critical of musical shortcomings. Choosing Death in particular drags along discussions of the labels and the politics of the music industry in its discussion, something that fleshes out the context of Death Metal’s various rises and falls. Both books are written by men who are fans of the music as well as real writers – Jeff Wagner is a rock historian; Albert Mudrian is a rock journalist – so the books are free of the kind of bad writing that might plague others who would attempt something as monumental as chronicling these musical genres. Neither book attempts to defend the music in question (much as I did above). The existence and continued popularity of both prog and death metal speak for themselves; the styles need no defense. This lack of any apologetics might seem to bar the door to the non-fan who might be interested in learning more about these two strange sets of sounds. Or, it might offer a non-fan a chance to learn something without any time wasted trying either to explain or defend the musical choices these bands have made.

As I write this closing paragraph, the song “Vertical” by the Polish progressive death metal band Votum plays on Spotify. Clear vocals and keyboards mix with downtuned guitars over odd rhythms, yet all firmly rooted in the dissonance of odd and minor chord progressions. We’ve reached the point where musics cross-pollinate, offering new and interesting opportunities both for musicians and listeners. It will never be popular; these are musical styles that aren’t supposed to be popular. They are what they are, and these two works offer for the reader willing to set aside prejudice the opportunity to learn not only where they came from, but where they might be headed in years ahead.

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Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music by Heidi Epstein

Tannhauser In The Venusberg by August von Heckel. As presented by Wagner, the Venusberg is a garden of carnal delights, whose forbidden fruits tantalize.

Music’s theological significance now resides, not in its incarnation of harmony and order, but in its promiscuity and disintegration, that is, in its disorderly conveyance of power, pleasure, and intimacy among willing bodies. – Heidi Klein, Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music, p.186

Few Christian doctrines are grasped as superficially as the Incarnation. Oh, we say the words of the Creed, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. All the same, ever since St. Paul, most likely unconsciously, expressed his culture’s ambivalence regarding embodiment, we Christians have sought to minimize the full import of the declaration that in the man Jesus is the fullness of the divine Son of God. Jesus is a man. He got tired and hungry. He fell ill with all its uncomfortable bodily side-effects. He broke wind after a good meal. He enjoyed wine and festivities. And, yes, he understood sexual arousal at an embodied level. It is this last that we so often refuse even to imagine. How is it possible to claim dogmatically that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine if we cannot accept that this same Jesus understood the power of human sexuality? I suppose imagining Jesus farting is funny enough; there’s just something bordering on blasphemous, however, imagining Jesus having sexual feelings and thoughts.

Of the many gifts feminist and womanist theological re-readings have offered, it is this reclamation of the blessedness of our embodied selves in all their fullness that are most to be celebrated. By turning the tables on millennia of what author Heidi Epstein calls, in the title of one of her chapters, “A Phallic Rage For Order”, we are reintroduced to ourselves as whole beings, body-and-soul indivisible with the possibility that precisely in our enfleshed, embodied existence lies both the reality of salvation as well as a rich source of theological reflection. Overthrowing the dualities of traditional dialectics of body/soul, immanence/transcendence, sacred/ profane, in feminist theologies we are offered the possibility of an integrated understanding of salvation-as-reintegration of that which sin has rent asunder.

Heidi Epstein’s Melting The Venusberg* is an important, I daresay necessary, corrective to much of the tradition of theologizing about music we in the west have continued even to our day. Beginning her deconstructing of the western Christian tradition of theologizing regarding music with the great pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, whose discovery of the way certain harmonic ratios are reflected in numerical ratios and relations, then through Plato’s preference for a restrained, perfectly harmonized music that reflects the image of the Form both of number and music, most of those who have commented on music, from John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas up through the reformers to the 20th century with Karl Barth’s effusive theologizing regarding Mozart and Jaroslav Pelikan’s similarly enraptured commentary on Bach, have insisted that it is this harmonic resonance alone that both demonstrates and embodies the perfection of what Hildegard of Bingen called Jesus as God-made-music.

The western tradition has always maintained that music has an ethical and pedagogical core; in learning of harmony’s numerical perfection, people (men) would be educated into recognizing the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation (an idea St. Augustine stole from Plato; an idea that continues to influence musicology and theology today). We learn about God through music. As her survey of the history of western theological reflection upon music demonstrates, however, Epstein emphasizes it is not just “music” as some abstract conception, but particular modes, with an emphasis upon harmony rather than either melody or rhythm. Indeed, it was precisely contemporaneous popular musics through the history of the west, with their emphases upon just those other elements, sidelining the numerical perfection of harmony as servant to other masters, that drew Christian commentator’s disdain. Like the Venusberg, music that impacts us bodily is a danger precisely because it is a pleasure and should thus be shunned, even damned.

In our fractured, post-modern, post-Christian context, however, this pursuit of harmonic perfection at the expense of the embodied pleasures of music is no longer even desirable, let alone theoretically defensible. Both theoretically and practically, Epstein offers an understanding of music that is wholly incarnational without ever losing sight that, as such, both sides must exist together. Theoretically, she defines music as a set of embodied practices, keeping it whole rather than, as she says, “dissecting” music’s body by breaking it down to its constituent parts in order to understand its whole. Practically she retrieves Hildegard of Bingen’s apologia for her own and her convent’s music-making against official clerical censure. She tells the story of Renaissance nuns in Bologna who defied clerical bans to create music in a contemporary idiom that was appreciated both for its aesthetic and contemplative powers. She reclaims woman-as-performer – something the west has always denigrated as little more than sexually promiscuous teasing (consider for a moment much of the criticism leveled at Nikki Minaj) – by retelling the stories of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and performance artist Diamanda Galas, we are confronted with the embodied practices of woman as conveyor of (musical) theological truths in subversive, transgressive ways precisely because of the sexual and ethical power they live in and through their musical performances. When we revision ourselves in light of Epstein’s ideas, passion and contemplation are no longer opposites, but inseparably linked through the disharmonies and even dissonances of Music-as-Woman. Rather than emasculating men (something men either covertly or overtly feared, at least according to much musicological theory since the 18th century in particular), a feminist theology of music makes us all, woman and man, whole again as we celebrate not the dialectic of Incarnation but its ever-present duality: always together in the single body of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m not sure Epstein’s work is a “great” work, if only because I think the era of “great” theological works is long behind us. I do, however, recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking in new, productive, seductive ways about the revelatory power inherent in music.

*As envisioned by Wagner, the Venusberg is a cave/castle ruled by the eternal temptress, a place both of danger and pleasure. Epstein’s title, therefore, is equivocal in its notion of the “melting” of such a center of female empowerment. I accept, however, that precisely because it’s an obvious metaphor for women’s sexual power over men – a cave filled with both pleasure (sexual intercourse) and danger (dissipation in sexual wantonness; fathering an unwanted child) – the idea of “melting” also has an obvious double entendre I’ll let the reader consider for him- or herself.