Oct 30, 2012
Art Should Be Loud
Eric HowertonA few years back, after nine months of living in Houston, I started listening to heavy metal music. When I was a teenager in the '90s I was familiar with popular heavy metal bands like White Zombie (psychedelic, campy blues metal), Korn (hip-hop laced, non-melodic mumble metal for white kids who wanted lowriders), and Pantera (smart, hateful, nihilistic, "Yeah, I'm pissing on the electric fence, so f@#$%ng what?!" metal), and I saw the occasional metal act in concert; but it was my brother who was the headbanger, whereas I was the punk rocker with dyed hair. He hung out with bums. I rode a skateboard. Through my undergraduate and graduate years I listened to a lot of different music, most of which you'd call indie or alternative rock, with the occasional hip hop or alt-country sprinkled in. During this time, I generally shied away from metal, wanting nothing to do with its guttural screams, incomprehensible distortion, and fingernail-on-chalkboard guitars. Because of my own unfamiliarity with what the better examples of the heavy metal genre were doing, I was ignorant of the crafty and intelligent metal out there. I would later discover that much of the music I thought was fueled by hate and anger wasn't really hateful or angry at all. Instead, the loudness that was often perceived as brashness was loud simply as a way of maximally amplifying the artist's message. Some of the best heavy metal music chooses to be loud for rhetorical effect. Heavy metal, as a genre, explores and experiments with the experience of loudness, often conveying its message in most deafening available format. I often liken heavy metal to the experience of viewing an abstract painting where there is far too much for the eye to take in at once, and in which you can tell from the brush strokes that the artist was coloring the canvas violently. Early parts in this song in particular make me see bright colors and streaks being aggressively applied to a dark canvas, something like a Jackson Pollock set to music.
"Number 8," 1949 (detail)
It wasn't until I moved to Houston that I stopped to understand heavy metal, and really all it took was slowing down and dedicating some time to understanding something new, something I couldn't initially comprehend the enjoyment of. It's my belief that the things we dislike are very often simply the things we don't have a rubric for appreciating, and because metal turned me off I figured it was--like mushrooms, onions, coconut, and mangoes, all of which I'd hated as a child but had come to love as an adult--something I would have to learn to appreciate. Sometimes I feel as though the difference between curious and complacent people is that curious people are intrigued by packets of sensory information for which they have no rubric to interpret that information by, whereas complacent people might be turned off by startlingly new information. These types of unfamiliar things--the things we spit out and say "Yuck! Why would anyone eat that?"--are the things that take time to appreciate. The same is true of certain types of art, especially art that does not dabble in subtlety but instead screams its message with unabashed explicitness (not explicit vulgarity, though that exists too; more explicit directness). So what does any of this have to do with writing? I'll get to that. Something about living in Houston, or getting a PhD, or scrabbling for work, made me want to start listening to loud music again. So I started listening to heavy metal, quickly realizing that, while most of it was still horrible, with the help of knowledgeable friends and a lot of patience you could winnow the options to a few fascinating gems of sonic bombardment that were not only loud and abrasive, but also smart, sensitive, and artfully done. These albums, like good books, taught you how to listen to them. They tried to manipulate loudness in ways that haven't been done before, creating new sensory experiences, new categories and patterns of music worthy of our attention. • Like all other artistic mediums, the vast majority of heavy metal out there is, in fact, of middling quality, and I can completely understand why most people don't want to listen to heavy metal because there's much to dislike. Some of the finer performers of heavy metal are interested in pursuing new avenues of sonic expression, while others are simply doltish, violent, uniform, and driven by an unrelenting agitation that is a little juvenile and a lot psychotic. Sadly, this latter category makes up the majority of the heavy metal because, let's face it, sounding original is incredibly difficult. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Most of the fiction we read is mediocre at best, and most of the poetry too, and most films we view. However, as collective writers, readers, and editors, we are constantly sifting through the barrage of written language options, searching for the marked words that speak to us, that draw us out of ourselves and into the sphere of shared human perspective. Certain pieces of writing make our search seem justified, while other times we simply have to sift through page upon page of literary mush. • A writer acquaintance of mine once asked me what was musical about heavy metal and what made it artistic. He was someone I took to be curious about different forms of discourse and art. He wasn't someone who had ever listened to aggressive or loud music and was genuinely surprised to hear that heavy metal actually had a storied past of referencing literature. Connections with literature? he asked in disbelief. For example? I went on to tell him that the sludge-metal band Mastodon had produced an album, Leviathan--featuring songs like "I Am Ahab," "Seabeast," and "Aqua Dementia"--songs that are open adaptations of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. He was surprised to hear that Led Zeppelin had mentioned The Lord of the Rings on occasion, and that the avant-garde metal-jazz outfit Mr. Bungle song "Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy" was, in some twisted, surrealistic way, an homage to The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Ok, so maybe "Golem II" isn't what you think of when you think of metal, so for a Mr. Bungle song with more traditionally recognizable "metal" sounds, but by no means a traditional metal song, try "Everyone I Went to High School with Is Dead": As our conversation came to an end, my friend asked would I send him some examples of good metal--not scary metal, mind you, but metal that would attack his stereotypes and upset his expectations. Like myself only a few years earlier, I took him to assume that most metal was doltish, violent, uniform, and driven by an unrelenting agitation that was a little juvenile and a lot psychotic. My first thought was to send a few links from Darkest Hour, one of the more nihilistic contemporary metal bands. Darkest Hour has strong lyrical ties to Nietzschian philosophy. Their 2009 album was called Eternal Return, a reference to Nietzsche's philosophical notion of the same name. But Darkest Hour did fall into that metal cliché of being anti-religion, and their songs were not particularly adventurous. I passed on Darkest Hour, hoping to help my writer friend see a rarer side of metal. I finally decided to send songs that might appeal to a writer's sensibilities versus a music lover's, songs that had a strong sense of narrative structure, emotional storytelling, or good use of language. One of these songs, which has mediocre lyrics at best but good structure and story, was the Dillinger Escape Plans' "Widower," a sprawling, six-minute metalcore ride with some classical turns. (Metalcore is a subgenre of heavy metal that often plays around with time signature, tempo, and arrangement, displacing them in a way similar to freestyle jazz. Sometimes it's clunky and arrhythmic; sometimes it's the perfect alignment of disorder.) Along with the song link I wrote a few words, describing "Widower" as having "emotional vulnerability, harmonies and melodies as well as harsh sounds, and frenetic passages." For sheer musicianship, I also suggested a song by Between the Buried and Me, a progressive, perplexing deathcore band with experimental graspings here and there. They've put out a number of albums, all of them containing musically transcendent moments. Of "Disease, Injury, Madness" I wrote: "Try to make it past the 2:30 mark and I think you'll be surprised": I ran into my acquaintance at a poetry reading a few months later and he confessed to me that he'd never listened to the links I sent him. I asked as politely as possible what had prevented him from listening. He said he'd simply been afraid. I nearly died laughing. • Maybe it's weird, but I like to think listening to heavy metal has made me a better listener of poetry. At readings I would often find that I had a hard time piecing together the poet's words to form the intended image or meaning. I knew I recognized the words themselves, but my thoughts drifted about those words instead of providing semantic glue between them. Maybe syntax wasn't something that translated easily aurally for me, I'm not sure. Connection to poetry: Because the screams in heavy metal are so intensely distorted, it can be a trial even to understand what's being said. Having to listen through or around the distortion in songs like Between the Buried and Me's "Roboturner" forced me to pay attention to the articulation of sound, simply in order to understand what words were being said. This is one of the more demanding elements of heavy metal--learning to hear and discern the articulation of screams--but it's one that I believe helped tune my ear to things other than just music.