Music you don’t approve of.

I was reading the Montréal Gazette the other day, when I came across an article about the Sûreté du Québec investigating a Montréal police shooting. Now, the police claimed the man was suicidal, and attacked them with a weapon. As for those details, we’ll read more about them when the SQ are done with their investigation.

That is not the point of this post.

This post is about a fascinating paragraph from the article:

Nadreau had been living with his girlfriend at the Nicolet St. apartment for several months, Harfoush said. He always wore black, had an aggressive disposition, and listened to heavy metal music late at night.

There was something compelling to me about this paragraph; the rest of the article is fairly straightforward, but it was this paragraph that hit me in the jaw and stuck. Here I was, reading about a disturbed individual having died in a confrontation with the police, when they were mentioning “heavy metal music”. For one thing, there’s not one definition of “heavy metal music” — he might listen to death metal, black metal, djent, hardcore, or any of a myriad new genres that are cropping up every week. But setting that aside, I have an alternate phrase to use in that sentence:

He always wore black, had an aggressive disposition, and listened to music you don’t approve of late at night.

Now, I’m writing this at 22h15, and I’m listening to “heavy metal music” as I do so. However, I thought about this for a while earlier, and decided I had something to say; after all, I don’t tend to write blog posts unless I’m good and riled up about a topic.

There’s lots of approaches to a critique of this paragraph, and the sentiment it evokes, but I’ll start with why I’m replacing their term with my phrase. The use of the term “heavy metal music” is a code phrase; when a journalist or a talking head invokes “heavy metal music” in discussing the actions of a deranged or otherwise disturbed individual, they’re calling up a longstanding cultural tradition reaching back to when rock and roll was called the Devil’s music — and look at what it is now, being called tired and dead in the New York Times of all places (whether or not the writer is correct in his assertions.) Nowadays, the phrase “heavy metal music” evinces the spectre of unspeakable satanic rituals and demonic lyrics, and it’s an image used by the media in print and on television — remember Jared Loughner? Apparently he listened to Drowning Pool. (I could care less about his musical tastes, he’s a deranged individual.) Furthermore, this was considered a large factor in his actions by various portions of the media. (Here’s what Metal Sucks reported about that.)

I’m not going to lie and say that metal is all happy, that would be stupid. Metal is about being pissed off, it’s about being furious. But metal is also about exploring the whole gamut of emotions and experiences; djent may focus on the cerebral interest of overlaid rhythmic patterns, and sludge is about obliterating the self in the sound, but prog metal is about studying the soul — and I dare say it is more cerebral than most rock these days (which, of course, is never implicated in shootings or suicides; rock is tame and accepted.)

I’ll walk through three very distinct branches of metal (which I happen to enjoy a great deal) and see if I can’t break up some of these preconceptions about Music You Don’t Approve Of. We’ll start with some prog/sludge (with the esteemed Mastodon), then travel the bleakness of the soul (by way of Seattle’s Agalloch) and finally lose ourselves in calculated insanity (due to who else, but Meshuggah.)

So, Mastodon. I’m starting with Mastodon because in some ways they’re the most approachable, and because they showcase both the sort of sentiments that are constantly used to attack metal (violent lyrics, apparently terrifying guitars) and yet also display a literary sentiment unlike almost any other. We’ll start with the sound and the fury, of course, because I’m the one writing this.

This is « Blasteroid » by Mastodon. It is, quite simply, a violent song. I also happen to think that it’s uproariously funny, and while my good friend David doesn’t like it too much, we agree to disagree about some things. On the same album, moreover, is the highly reflective piece « Creature Lives »:

Creature is a fairly prog-rich song, and showcases a great deal of the mastery behind Mastodon’s style; it also has a far more cerebral feel to it, and invites reflexion after listening. How often can that be said of rock today? Pop? I didn’t think so.

Just for fun, here’s another brilliant example from Mastodon — « Blood and Thunder »:

Now, here’s something you don’t see often; it’s a concept album entirely about Moby Dick. Again, how often can that be said of rock or pop? Yeah.

Next up is the darkness that is Black Metal. This is the music of the Scandinavian metal scene, associated with church burnings and murder. You’d expect it to be all Satanic and evil, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Varg Vikernes has committed despicable acts and said terrible things, but by and large, black metal has left behind its gory past; to that end, I offer up some of the best music for a blizzard, Agalloch’s « In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion »:

I call your attention to the following lyrics, for special consideration:

Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God

Then God is not dead.

Now, although Agalloch keeps the ambience of Black Metal with the growled, raw-sounding lyrics, they have branched so far from its admittedly twisted roots to a particularly expressive new realm. So far, we’re arguably 0 for 2 on particularly violent or provocative bands.

I suppose Meshuggah would be considered truly provocative; their lyrics are brutal, their sound is unrelenting, and their song titles are disturbing (if you’re not a metal fan, that is.) Here’s their « Stengah », off of the album Nothing:

Even in this, there is method to the madness, and the lyrics speak to fighting addiction and authority (and perhaps compare the two; once again, I ask how often you encounter that in rock or pop, and yes, you can feel free to spew abuse at me in the comments.) If you want to hear their brilliance, go listen to « Bleed » (off of obZen) and try to understand the rhythms. I’ll wait.

In short, I want to break the image that has been built up of metal as Music You Don’t Approve Of, and particularly the term used by the media, “heavy metal music” — because casting one particular genre of music as more related to death and destruction than any other is ignorant and simplistic.

Edited to change to Archive.org link, as the Gazette took down the page.

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