There continues to be a wide gap between the general public’s understanding of the extreme metal community and how the extreme metal community actually is. Last week, someone asked me “How can someone as clearly positive, infinitely optimistic, and intentionally as uplifting as yourself be so inundated by death metal?” Some have tried to bridge this gap of understanding. Anthropologist Sam Dunn offered a look with his excellent 2005 film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, but that still was more a work of passion than of science. As a person with two degrees in psychology, I thought I’d offer up my thoughts for any outsiders of the extreme metal community.
Before proceeding, I want to clarify a definition. I’m intentionally speaking about the extreme metal community, and not your casual radio listeners. Not your Pantera or Metallica fans, for example. I’m going to explain five of the major reasons people of all walks of life can connect with extreme metal.
1. The lyrical content isn’t all dark and offensive.
2. It’s complex music which challenges the listener.
3. Extreme metal is a progressive and connected community.
4. Extreme metal is high-energy music for high-energy people (or in the case of doom, low-energy music for low-energy people).
5. Extreme metal is a coping mechanism.
Extreme metal might seem barbaric to some, largely because of the publicity that the lyrical content has been given. Rape, misogyny, murder, Satan, and other depraved topics are commonplace, but it’s important to put that into context. Extreme metal is a counter-culture. It embraces the taboo while acknowledging it. Extreme metal fans generally aren’t rapists, misogynists, murderers, or people worshipping a literal devil or evil entity. Where some people might prefer to avoid conversations about sex or horrible atrocities, extreme metal faces these dark sides of society head-on. One could look at it in a “keep your enemies closer” sort-of way. There’s two ways to approach these sort of lyrics. The first, is to liken them to a horror movie. Whether it be torture-porn like the Saw franchise, or more psychological like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, extreme metal covers a full-spectrum of horrific topics, but just like the directors of the aforementioned films, extreme metal musicians and films do not condone those activities. It is entertainment. And much of it is written in such an over-the-top way that it’s unquestionably tongue-in-cheek among metal fans, and almost enters into self-parody territory.
What I’ve discussed so far addresses the lyrical content that people stereotypically identity with extreme metal, but it’s worth acknowledging that it isn’t nearly all of the lyrical content found in extreme metal. Bands like Wormed and (late-era) Deeds of Flesh write exclusively about outer space and alien invasions. Immolation has been writing about conspiracy theories. For many, if not most of the bands that write about the devil, Satan is used as a metaphor for freedom, not as a literal anti-Christian entity (Freedom from religion or freedom from societal and cultural norms). Many bands write about tragic loss and heartbreak. Some, like Arch Enemy and Cynic, even have uplifting lyrics. Some bands sing about their own cultural struggles or heritage, such as Orphaned Land and Chthonic (more on them later). Lyrics can also be humorous (and they often are), as metal bands often don’t take themselves seriously (aesthetically & lyrically, not musically). And lastly, many extreme metal bands don’t have lyrics at all. All of this is of little consequence, because the focus in extreme metal, unlike many more popular genres – isn’t on the lyrics. It’s on the musicality.
Extreme metal is a challenge to the listener. When choosing between extreme metal and radio rock, it’s equivalent to the difference between reading Anne Rice and Dr. Seuss. It’s complex. It’s detailed. It’s deep. Musically, genres like death metal share more with classical music, whereas mainstream rock music is more blues-influenced. The challenge that music like technical death metal offers the listener can be incredibly rewarding for those that engage it. With constant tempo changes, time signature changes, leads, solos, and polyrhythms, it’s music for musicians that want to be challenged. And so many diverse influences mix in with extreme metal, from the use of the Phrygian scale by bands like Nile, to introducing Arabic and Egyptian sounds into the genre, to bands like Orphaned Land, Tengger Calvary, Dying Out Flame, Impureza, and Chthonic that incorporate instruments and influences from their respective cultural backgrounds into their music. You could make the argument that most rock songs or pop songs sound similar. They’re similar compositionally. They use the same 4/4 time signature. But that doesn’t apply to metal. Some extreme metal bands, like Mephistopheles from Australia, don’t even incorporate choruses into their music. And if we break it down by genre, the differences are even more immense. Grindcore bands can have songs that are mere seconds long. Doom metal bands can have a single song that lasts over an hour. Regardless of genre though, extreme metal isn’t casual music. It challenges the listener, and what that challenge entails is dependent on the genre and the person. And the understanding of that relationship between the music and the person is what connects extreme metal fans of each respective sub-genre.
Extreme metal is a progressive and interconnected community. For many, it’s a lifestyle. Sexuality, gender, race, culture, and to a lesser extent religion are all things that have little to no biases in extreme metal culture. When Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Gaahl of black metallers Gorgoroth came out as gay, it did not discredit their roles in the extreme metal community. Marissa Martinez, who fronts the longstanding deathgrind band Cretin, is a transgender woman who received tremendous support from the metal community when she went public. Although metal used to be a male-dominated genre, there are now prominent figures in metal that shred with the best of them, growl like the best of them, blast with the best of them, etc, except they’re female. A viral image of Nergal (from Behemoth) with an Islamic woman went viral a year or two ago proclaiming that metal welcomes people regardless of religion. Extreme metal bands exist in every corner of the world, so race is not an issue. Good music is good music, regardless of where it comes from. As an ironic turn from what’s currently debated in political forums, I saw the band Rottenness at Chicago Domination. They explained how it’d been a while since they had played the States, because their guitarist, Jajleel Castillo, is a resident of Mexico. Jajleel was welcomed by all in the room as a brother. The boundaries of race are torn down in the metal community. Legends in our culture are of every race, religion, and ethnicity. Drummer Mike Smith, an African-American man, is often credited as being one of the creators of the blast beat. These are just a few of the seemingly unlimited examples of how diversity in extreme metal is not a boundary for metal fans. In many ways, extreme metal is more progressive than mainstream culture, and that’s without even going into our acceptance of tattoos and piercings. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what your sexual preferences are – if you share the bond of metal, then you’re family.
Outside of all of these reasons that extreme metal has fans, there’s the intensity of the music. It’s extreme music for people that enjoy indulging in those extremes. For adrenaline junkies, there’s grindcore. For tech junkies, there’s tech death or prog. Then there’s the other extreme, doom, where bands play as slow and simple as any bands can play. These are over-simplifying comments, but each genre has a certain energy to it, and that energy is going to connect with certain sorts of people. For instance, for myself. I’m the type of person that can’t sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. I’m always tapping on something. I always want to go out and do things. So my taste in music reflects that. It’s fast, it changes, and it’s never monotonous.
Music is not only an extension for each person, it’s also an outlet for each person. Having a rough day? A good song can help alleviate that. Having a rough month? A live performance with people outletting that negative energy with you might resolve that. A concert is a ritual, and one free of violence or negativity, regardless of how it might appear to an outsider. When you leave a good extreme metal show, only positivity remains. People are smiling. People that would slam into each other in the pit are often hugging when it’s all over. Because there’s a bond there. A brotherhood. An understanding.
It’s important to realize that extreme metal doesn’t want to be accepted. Metal fans enjoy the exclusivity of their culture. But, at least for us, it might make our lives easier if people stop stereotyping us as malicious Satanists that want to harm other people. Unlike famous feuds in Hip Hop culture, no such thing exists on any widespread level among extreme metal musicians and fans. The album covers might be violent, but the fans are not. Just as fans of horror movies aren’t going out and killing people, neither are metal fans. I was asked the question, “How can someone as clearly positive, infinitely optimistic, and intentionally as uplifting as yourself be so inundated by death metal?” And my answer would be, “Because the death metal subculture is positive, infinitely optimistic, and intentionally uplifting.” That might seem counter-intuitive, but that’s how you feel when you leave an extreme metal performance. If I want to be depressed and lose faith in humanity, I’ll turn on the news. If I want to feel good and feel infinite optimism and a mutual respect from other people, I’ll go to a death metal show.
Kyle Messick is a research associate at Indiana University, the mind behind Indianapolis Deathfeast, and the frontman of several Indiana metal bands.