Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Evolution of Metalheads, Or Metal as Confrontation - A Review of Immolation

I've written before about metal as a modern war dance. We'll come back to that in a second. I was listening to Immolation's Kingdom of Conspiracy, which has received great reviews.

Briefly: music is organized sound that evokes emotion - specifically, sustainable non-aversive basic emotions. That is, the basic emotions that you can experience at length and that don't make you want to get away. That means in music we have happiness, sadness, anger, but not fear, disgust or surprise. That does explain most music. And interestingly, this German-Canadian research study comparing the reactions of Europeans vs. Pygmies listening to each others' never-before-heard music shows that a given piece of music might stir different emotions, but a) they would still activate basic emotions and b) they would do so to about the same extent. That is, maybe when Pygmies are listening to Beethoven they get sad instead of happy, but they got sad to the same degree the Europeans get happy, and the Pygmies didn't get contemptuous or disgusted. I found this fascinating because these two groups of people are not only culturally isolated, they are also about as genetically unrelated as it is possible for two groups of humans to be.

Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, there was a hole in Western music in the sense that anger was not represented. Sure, we have military marches, but those are limited in exposure (because most of us are not warriors, and most of us don't have warriors in our families), and associated with large institutions that young males in need of angry music probably don't want to submit to. (Although it must be said, many metalheads also like military marches, myself included, and some metal sounds like military marches.) So it might not be surprising that in the West we re-invented war dances, right down to the posturing, threats and war paint. Seriously. Watch the by now, fully established faces and movements of metal performers and then listen to a Lakota war song or watch a Maori haka. The angry young males of the West had a vacuum in their experience and metal filled it.

So what does this mean when those angry young males become less angry, and much less young? Listening to Immolation, I wondered about two things that have changed in many venerable metalheads' appreciation after decades of listening, for art generally, and metal specifically.

1) For art generally, you become acutely sensitive to structure and format.

To this end, most death metal described as "technical" or "innovative" actually doesn't depart much from the standard format of rock in general established over half a century ago (and frankly dating to blues before that). Intro, verse chorus maybe another verse chorus, bridge, maybe solo, verse chorus outro. (The leads on this record are my favorite thing about it, but they're not new. They're kind of Kerry King meets Michael Amott.) These are the rules of metal, and deviations are reckoned against them. But the reality is that if music deviates too much from a recognizable format, it's not enjoyable, and it's hard to follow; see much of modern classical or avant garde music, which you can't remember immediately after listening to it. All nervous systems have a balance between recognizing patterns, but having enough novelty (mismatches or otherwise unexpected elements in the information) that it causes more attention to be paid. This becomes an increasingly difficult feat as a genre's possible space (given its rules) is swept out by compositions; maybe this explains why new genres tend to appear in big bangs of punctuated equilibrium as a new compositional space is broken into, rather than being best predicted by artistic gradualism. But I notice that us old metalheads, explicitly no longer value novelty like we did (or claimed we did). Someone is intentionally going to write a Part II to Reign in Blood? Sign me up! (Sadly, occasionally bands say they'll do something like this, but then they don't.)

2) For metal specifically, I'm tired of the confrontationalness of it.

As mentioned, metal songs are for the most part modern war dances. And you get past that. If you can't see the performers or the music as intimidating, you can no longer appreciate this part of it; and there's not much else to say on this front. The fantasy of powers that the music projects, either from direct threats and claims of strength or gaining power through taboo violation (a known theme in anthropology) becomes harder to take seriously; there are people and things in the world to be legitimately afraid of, and at a certain point, your boss getting angry at you or your kid getting hit by a car become much scarier than any corpsepaint ever could be, even in some state of suspended disbelief during a show. It also bears mentioning that for young genre music enthusiasts, consuming that particular genre does part of the job of establishing your identity (why should being a metalhead or hip hop fan have anything at all to do with how you dress or any other aspect of your life but what's on you iPod? But clearly they do.) As music fans get older, their identity gets filled in by other things - in particular, profession and family. You hope. Unless that profession is "musician".

The point is not to say, "I'm too old to like metal anymore, and soon you will be too." It's a call to performers and consumers to recognize that innovation for its own sake is not usually productive and it's actually preferable to focus on writing killer music within the rules; and also to establish new rules not for their own sake, but to produce new material that relies on tonal and rhythmic interaction (which itself can make you angry or scared; heard of Opeth?) and not how scary everything is supposed to be.

Oh yeah, the Immolation review. Like I said, I mostly liked the leads. There were a couple big, hummable riffs too.


Anonymous said...

"As music fans get older, their identity gets filled in by other things - in particular, profession and family. You hope."

So, if you're not interested in defining yourself through reproduction or your place in the capitalist hierarchy, then you're immature? Brutal.

Michael Caton said...

So profession ONLY means capitalist hierarchy? I think there's a little daylight between those any event, yes, family and work are more important than metal. They always were, even when we didn't realize it.