A Metal Odyssey
I’ll tell you straight up – I don’t really like metal. The music, that is. But maybe I hadn’t given it a fair go. Maybe I had approached it wrong, or had it prosthelytised by the wrong people. So I asked my metal-loving friend Bender for a mixtape of metal appreciation. I’ve listened to it, and I thought the report might make a neat blog post. And like a classic metal song, it’s long!
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Where I’m coming from
I’m a big fan of melody and clever or insightful lyrics. My main music interests lie in alternative rock (Ben Folds, They Might Be Giants, The Shins, Green Day, Tegan and Sara), electronic pop (Ladytron, Garbage or Royksopp) or a light smattering of hiphop/nerdcore rap (Hilltop Hoods or MC Frontalot). So yeah, pretty far removed from metal.
Nevertheless I like a bunch of Metallica (they’re metal, right?) and some other songs that I swear would be metal but dare not make the mistake of publicly guessing, lest it be hard rock or punk rock. I had a housemate once that tried to educate me on the wide panoply of metal genres. My take-away thought from it was “Are you for real?” What’s the difference between heavy metal, black metal, thrash metal, glam metal, all the grindcore / hardcore / grindthrash / thrashcore…? And then you have the jazz metal, electro-latin buzz metal, folk industrial Swedish alpine metal… It’s hard to take it seriously.
Not only that, but to my non-discerning ear, it all sounded the same. Lots of roaring, growling and screedledee guitar riffs. All the albums were “a picture of a dragon having sex with a naked blonde chicks while beheading a unicorn in space“. Lyrics seemed to be the output of a depressed, angry Markov generator (“The reaper’s darkness devours the skeleton forest of my souuuuuuul”).
Deep down I’m an optimist. While I sometimes enjoy painting something in a cartoonish light, I believe that everything has a decent reason to be. I don’t have to like everything, but I felt like there has to be something substantial behind things that folk like. So I decided I needed to determine what the heck “metal” was and what was good about it. So let’s see!
My friend Bender chose a CD full of music, designed to give me a bit of a journey through metal through time and genre. It may be a little idiosyncratic and tailored to me (very few of the songs are of epic length, and some notable bands are skipped). For each song I read the Wikipedia entry for the band (and the song, if it existed) and read the lyrics to each song as it was playing. I took notes as they were playing. There are a lot of songs, so I’ll be brief about each. So without further ado, the list!
- DevilDriver – End of The Line
- Judas Priest – Breaking the Law
- Thyrfing – Hednaland
- Sepultura – Refuse/Resist
- Megadeth – My Darkest Hour
- In Flames – Moonshield
- HellYeah – HellYeah
- Slipknot – Opium of the People
- Iron Maiden – The Trooper
- Steel Panther – Asian Hooker
- Opeth – Demon of the Fall
- Tristania – My Lost Lenore
- Anathema – Empty
- Slayer – Disciple
- Pantera – A New Level
- Children of Bodom – Silent Night, Bodom Night
- Manowar – Fighting the World
- Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
1. DevilDriver – End of the Line
This is apparently in the genre of “deathgroove” which I’ve never heard of before. The initial soundscape sounded a little like Evermore. I was impressed by the precision and speed of the drums and guitar, which is kinda genre-important. Unfortunately the lyrics didn’t do anything for me, and the alternation between roaring and screaming felt awkward and a little silly.
2. Judas Priest – Breaking the Law
This is “heavy metal”. I guess for its time it may have been heavy, but I didn’t see it as much heavier than, say, Sex Pistols. It had a very 80s feel for me, although it may have featured in GTA: Vice City. I know now why Judas Priest is so iconic – they have a recognizable style and were probably a big deal in their apogee. I liked that the lyrics were understandable and something not “spooky ghosts and blood and dark woods” like End of the Line.
3. Thyrfing – Hednaland
Man, Thyrfing is hard to type. Apparently this is “Viking metal”. I was aware that metal is massive in Scandinavia, and Norse mythology would be easy to utilize in metal. I can kinda hear the viking in it – some sort of battle-hardened sea shanty. This felt like early 90s music. Not as clean as Judas Priest but cleaner than DevilDriver. The lyrics were some crazy Swedish stuff, so no good for me. I could imagine, though. The pastoral accents (pan pipes?) were neat, although the pace of this song is all over the place. It didn’t quite have the musicianship of DevilDriver or Judas Priest, but seemed to demonstrate the Nordic style well.
4. Sepultura – Refuse/Resist
I had heard of Sepultura before, but not any of their music. This was apparently “post grind moving into Death Groove” which makes no sense to me. I don’t get the “grind”. I could relate this vaguely to DevilDriver. The start of this song had a good tribal feel, then they just drop it on the floor and jam into any old metal. The lyrics feel like they want to be anthemic, but there’s no real heart behind it. Though, to be fair, when they got stuck into it, my head was nodding in appreciation. I didn’t believe the seemingly aimless aggression, and the lyricist loses five points for attempting to rhyme “unleashed” with “lynched”. Wikipedia mentioned that the heartbeat at the start of this was his then-unborn child. I have no idea why this has anything to do with general “Down with The Man” sentiments.
5. Megadeth – My Darkest Hour
I had certainly heard of Megadeth before, who are apparently into “thrash metal”. This is like Metallica, who I like. There’s a similar big-stage concert production feel to it. And it smacks of the early 90s. The sound is pretty straightforward. Wikipedia suggests this song is about both the death of their bandmate, and a breakup the lead singer went through. To be honest, the lyrics are juvenile feelings about a breakup. There’s no lyrical structure at all and the music hardly reflects the lyrics. This was 6 minutes 16 seconds, the longest song thus far by a fair margin. There was a whole bunch of screedledeedee guitar solos in the middle. I agree with the band Franz Ferdinand – guitar solos are for the band, not for the fans, and are somewhat masturbatory. I figured this song would be a great accompaniment to being drunk and in a big crowd.
6. In Flames – Moonshield
This is “melodic death”, which was both nonsensical to me and promising. At this point in the CD we’re back to some interesting instrumentation and structure. The lyrics are decent, with the generic depression/anger style I expect from metal. But they were crafted with some style, unlike Megadeth’s. I can’t take the death growl at all seriously. Have a throat lozenge, seriously. The bits without lyrics were pretty awesome, which is probably my penchant for melody coming through.
7. HellYeah – HellYeah
Right off the bat, you have to be pretty ballsy to name a song after your band. They Might Be Giants did it in style. This “groove metal” hasn’t got the cleverness of TMBG but that’s not the point. This song was allegedly from 2007, and you can tell because of all the crazy effects at the start. There’s clear lyrics and you can sense the “groove” coming through. I felt like this was “the real deal”, compared to vague contemporaries like Limp Bizkit. Nevertheless, the lyrics were a bit laughable. I went through my late teenage “angry young white man” phase, and recognize the impotent rebelling against straw men. Probably best to be drunk to, and whilst acting like a jerk in the crowd, which is a legitimate activity.
8. Slipknot – Opium of the People
Ah Slipknot. I never really listened to them, but I knew of their legend (i.e. their masks). I liked reading how their mask theme was a way to distance themselves from the corporate music machine, but people interpreted this as just a commercial gimmick. Bender deemed this “Nu Metal” but wasn’t really sure about it. Nu Metal includes Limp Bizkit, which I totally can’t see. It had the feel of a more serious, less commercial Korn. The song itself had some amazing guitar work. But then again, it doesn’t sound like the work of 8 musicians. The lyrics came across to me as “I’m gonna go all out and… do something.. rebel against Christianity? I dunno”.
9. Iron Maiden – The Trooper
Iron Maiden are fairly iconic for heavy metal. I think the extent of my previous listening of Iron Maiden was the line in Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” where they were referenced. We were back in the late 80s, and you can feel the tonal shift. There was a bit more structure and a good pace. Technically it was a really good song, but I kinda got bored of it by the end. I found the lyrics funny: the Light Brigade facing off against the Russian army at the Battle of Balaclava, yet the British soldiers talk about his “comrades” beside him.
10. Steel Panther – Asian Hooker
Hoo boy. This is “glam metal”, which I associated with The Darkness. This felt slightly more metal than glam to me, but I could see where it came from. It felt like the type of music Tenacious D parodies/celebrates. I found the song somewhat racist and silly, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt of being intentionally comedic. It was embarrassing to listen to the song, which was probably a slight prank by Bender. I bet the song writer was over the moon that he got to use the “South Korea”/”gonorrhea” rhyme.
11. Opeth – Demon of the Fall
We are getting serious again with a dose of “progressive death” metal. I wanted Opeth to take me somewhere awesome but Opeth just wanted to roar. The word “autumn” in death growl is hilarious. He might have well growled “cup of tea”. Even reading the lyrics I had little idea what the hell was supposed to be going on. The song was 6:13 long, most of it tooling around with their instruments in the intro. I liked the style of the music from the lyrics “Run away”, but there was so much messing around to get to that point.
12. Tristania – My Lost Lenore
I figured the Edgar Allen Poe reference straight away, and guessed this as “gothic metal” before I read it as such. The piano gave it a nice gothic feel, although both lyrics and music gave me the impression of normal metal with gothic stylings rather than a thing-in-itself. My ears appreciated the female vocals after almost an hour of growly screaming men. The contrast of male death growl and operatic female vocals was neat. But the death growl only vaguely approximated the lyrics. Despite a bunch of things rubbing me up the wrong way, I still didn’t mind this song. It reminded me of Evanescence who can smash out a song or two.
13. Anathema – Empty
My notes read “Now this feels different”. Anathema work in “doom metal”. I don’t know what the major difference between this and, say, “death metal”. Both would be fairly doomy if I had to guess. The lyrics were pretty bland here, but I liked the music. The de-emphasis on bass was welcome. The song had good pacing and structure, and although it was a short song, it inhabited its time well.
14. Slayer – Disciple
I knew about Slayer, but again hadn’t heard any of their music. I certainly don’t subscribe to “grindcore”, whatever the hell that is. Nevertheless I thought I had heard this song before. Not that that was a good thing – this was all thrashy and there was no real structure. Via the lyrics and music, this came across as a guy who wants to hate stuff but no-one will be his enemy so he just calls out everyone and everything. This is probably mid-20s music – older than the juvenile approach of Megadeth or HellYeah, but not that much more mature.
15. Pantera – A New Level
Another metal legend. We’re back in “groove metal”, although this feels like the proper long-haired, beer-with-the-roadies metal to me. This song didn’t do anything for me. Very much a “get drunk and just mosh it all out” song.
16. Children of Bodom – Silent Night, Bodom Night
This band apparently named themselves after a lake in Sweden that had a decent-sounding name. There was a famous string of murders amongst some teenagers, but I wasn’t sure if Children of Bodom liked that aspect of it. This is “extreme power metal” and it shows. The song was epic from the very beginning. I imagined the guitarist had to have a little machine to strum so fast. The singer had no need for lyrics and was mostly just screaming, which I guess is genre-appropriate.
17. Manowar – Fighting the World
After the previous epic song, this song in the “epic metal” genre would have to dial up the epic to 11. It didn’t. I figured this song was from the late 80s. It felt like a funny kind of water-weak rebellion. Unnamed people were telling them to not play metal, but hell no, they have their priorities! This was not much longer than Anathema’s song, but at 3 minutes in, I was bored of it. A bunch of Lord of the Rings elves splash-fighting in a stream seemed as epic as this song.
18. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Black effing Sabbath. I had heard of these guys, for sure. But I was confused if I was going to hear any Ozzie Osbourne and if he was in this band or another. Bender’s genre notes for this just read “THE GODFATHERS OF METAL!!!!!!!!!!” Yes, that many exclamation marks. And I totally understand. They had a very classic chord progression but this really unique but awesome texture. In this song, I really felt like Black Sabbath inhabited somewere special in the metal pantheon. I didn’t quite understand the lyrics. They kept inverting themselves, which seemed intentional but at the same time, confusing. This was very much a song that’d be really awesome live. The lyrics and instrumentation were tight. The guitar solos were just as much for the audience as the guitarist, which is great. A 7 minute song that felt like it deserved the time. Understandably awesome.
At this point, I have a better appreciation for the textures between the different subgenres of metal. I didn’t become a convert, but I am tempted to listen to some more Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. Maybe something in the genre of “doom metal” with electronica influences. I’m too introspective and amiable for the majority of metal to mean anything to me (especially anything “grind”). While most of the tropes played out exactly as I expected, I got a sense of substance to it all. That metal wasn’t just for disaffected or disgruntled folk with a penchant for fantasy. It tickled some specific ganglia. Not my favourite ganglia, but an understandable cluster of them.
You can find many of these songs on Youtube or Pandora. Have a listen to the mix-tape and share your thoughts.
Cheers to Bender for the mix-tape and for you getting this far
Tags: experiment, music, opinion