I love metal.
I don’t mean old-school classics like Black Sabbath or The Scorpions (though they were both pretty cool). Nor do I mean Godsmack and the other jock rock they play at your standard monster truck rally or military recruitment center.
No, I’m talking about modern hardcore- and prog-influenced metal-the kind where guitar solos blaze and bass drums thunder, where the frontman sounds like his vocal cords could shred themselves and fly out into the audience at any moment. Bands like Oh Sleeper, Protest the Hero, and Misery Signals , where every song is seven minutes long, and by the time you get back to the start of the CD you’ve forgotten all the notable riffs because there are so damn many.
That’s the sort of music I enjoy and play, and it never ceases to amaze me how little interaction the general public has with it. Particularly in Seattle, land of the experimental indie pop band, people tend to back away slowly as soon as you mention words like “screamer” or “hardcore.”
Yet metal has so much to offer that I feel someone needs to step up and defend its character, to bring those fence-sitters and potential metalheads into the fold. Presented below are four reasons why you should give metal a chance.
Technical Skill: The other day I was stopped at a coworker’s desk to listen to his latest indie band discovery, only to realize that the guitarist played the same chord for the entire drawn-out verse. While I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing-the song was actually pretty catchy-it’s hardly inspiring as a musician.
More than any other popular genre, metal has technicality at its heart. While a punk rock band can get by on the same three or four power chords for an entire album-hey, I’ve done it too-metal listeners are more demanding. Even for a local band, if you’re playing modern metal and metalcore, it’s expected that you have at least one guitarist capable of whipping out some blazing solos. If your drummer can’t keep up a straight double-bass roll at 200 BPM indefinitely, you’ll be dismissed out of hand.
Even if you’re not a musician, the sheer show of force present in modern metal is a blast to watch-that guitarist sweep-picking and tapping out the eye-melting solos is every bit as impressive as a professional athlete, and a lot cheaper to see live.
Progressive Tendencies: Pop music is based on a formula. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and maybe an intro or interlude if you get lucky. Ninety-eight percent of the music you hear on the radio follows that format, and the reason is simple: it works. Simplicity is catchy-pick a simple hook, showcase it over and over again with the other instruments hanging back and giving it space, and it’ll enter the collective consciousness almost immediately. Sounds easy, right?
It is, and yet there’s one small problem. Hear a simple, catchy song once and you love it. Hear it three times, and you know it by heart. By the fifth time, however, it’s starting to get old, and by the tenth you wish the artist had never been born and the radio would quit playing that damn song!
The answer, of course, is to “get progressive.” Throw out traditional song structures and ditch instant catchiness in favor of complexity that will keep the songs fresher, longer. More than any genre except perhaps jazz (and if you would rather listen to that, I’m not sure this column is of much use), metal has embraced prog. In keeping with the aforementioned technical prowess, most of my favorite metal bands demand that every band member be playing awesome riffs, all the time, at the height of their ability. I’ll frequently throw in a favorite CD and attempt to listen to just one instrument all the way through, the better to notice all the subtle distinctions. Metal is no place for the lazy.
Moreover, good metal understands that you don’t need to run a cool riff into the ground-when your song is seven minutes long and chock-full of amazing 15-second sections that never get repeated, your audience is going to have to listen to that thing dozens of times before they’ve squeezed our every last drop of awesome. Heck, not even good ol’ 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures are enough anymore-the first time I heard somebody play in 5/4, 7/8, or 17/16 time, my brain almost exploded from the strain. And once I recovered, I immediately knew that I could never go back.
Double Bass: Where my first two points relied on the listener being interested in dissecting their music intellectually, double bass is the opposite: a visceral, physical appeal you feel in your bones. Double bass-the practice of playing your kick drum with two pedals, making it easier to roll at incredible speeds-is the backbone of modern metal, and one of the reasons why good metal drummers are so well respected. A good drummer rolling on the kick is a wall of sound, a wave that shakes you and makes you listen with every conductive bone and hair. That rumble in their sternum is frequently the first thing that my metal convert friends point to as what got them interested.
Screaming: “I can get behind all that,” you’re probably saying. “Quality musicianship is to be admired, and I love guitar solos as much as the next guy. But why all the screaming? Why can’t you just sing, like metal bands used to?”
Fair enough, and my only real answer is that screaming is an acquired taste, and fulfills an altogether different function than singing.
Think of it like guitar-once upon a time, electric guitar tone was always clean, pure, and bell-like. Then back in the 60s, some bands discovered that they could get a more aggressive, ratty tone by turning their amps up until they started breaking and fuzzing out. Sure, it wasn’t appropriate for all music, but it created a whole new way of using the instrument.
Screaming is the same way. While singing is better for transmitting melody and lyrics, it’s something that floats on top of the instrumentation-it’s the icing on the cake. And as everyone knows, too much icing will make you sick. Screaming, on the other hand, is used more like percussion-it adds texture and weight to the wall of sound, makes it more forceful. Sure, it’s harder to tell what somebody’s saying (though you quickly learn to translate), but that’s not the point. Screaming is there to evoke an attitude and a mood, and while singing dominates a song, screaming takes only its equal share of the musical space. When done properly, it’s chilling how much emotion can be transmitted by one guy screaming his guts out into the microphone, working his throat to the breaking point.
All of the above is why, starting today, Nada Mucho will be hosting a new heavy metal column, “Metal Matters.” Here you’ll read about the latest releases, shred-tastic up-and-coming local bands, and thoughts on the genre as a whole-in short, everything you need to get out there and start experimenting with “that screaming stuff.”
Until next time-godspeed, metal warriors.
James Sutter plays bass in the local metal band Shadow at Morning.