Entertainment May 2011

How Heavy Metal Is Keeping Us Sane

Dark and disturbing, the music is honest about human nature
John P. Midgley/Corbis Outline

To see a world without heavy metal, an unmetalled world, simply rotate your cranium a few degrees to the right or left. Perhaps you are in Starbucks, where it is time for your Iced Caramel Macchiato. Not a single unnameable beast assaults you as you make your way to the counter. Rounding the display of merchandise, you are neither hexed by depression nor dragged to hell in the arms of a she-demon. You place your order, quite failing to bellow with psychic agony. There is no heavy metal anywhere.

Or is there? For as you wait, drink in hand, at the condiment bar, in the usual muttering press of sugar-grabbers and milk-seekers, you feel a tremendous agitation. You feel, in fact, fleetingly homicidal. Who are these people? Why are they taking so long? If only you could smite them all …

“We seem to move on a thin crust,” warned Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough,

which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below. From time to time a hollow murmur underground or a sudden spirt of flame into the air tells of what is going on beneath our feet.

Though written in 1922, this is metalspeak, pure and simple. The venerable mythographer was presaging not only the basso quakes and pyro-blasts that have long been a staple of the larger metal shows, but the metal mind-set itself. Since its invention (to which we will return in a moment), heavy metal has been the popular music most ardently devoted to Frazer’s underground magma pools, and most grandly expressive of their inevitable eruption. Metal’s commerce with the lower realm has been extravagant, ridiculous, and covered in glory. The sleeper parched of his dreams, or purged of his nightmares, goes swiftly bonkers: without fantasy there is no reality. It might be argued—indeed, it will be argued, by me, right now—that heavy metal has kept us sane.

It’s been 40 years since the release of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and 25 since Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the first presenting us with the aboriginal metal vision, the second refining that vision dramatically. And today we find ourselves in something of a metal slump. There’s plenty of it around; the kids, in hundreds of thousands, are buying albums by Disturbed or Avenged Sevenfold; longtime casualties like your correspondent are enjoying Mastodon, High on Fire, and the smoldering Zoroaster; the extremist has his niche metals—his death metal and his black metal and his drone metal and his vocals that sound like a man vomiting in a cathedral. And the hoary old gods (Slayer, Metallica) are still chucking the odd thunderbolt. But metal’s profile is low: the mega-tours seem to pass invisibly from city to city, with no new figureheads arising at whom the general populace can scream and throw turnips. Metal didn’t even dent Billboard’s top 50 best-selling albums of 2010. Prompting the question: Have we passed peak metal?

Unlikely, I think. Metal renews itself, as we shall see. Nonetheless, the moment invites us to cogitate a little upon the whole heavy-metal thing—to go back, as it were, to first principles.

Black Sabbath created heavy metal. We can say that with a satisfying kick-drum thump of certainty. Cream was heavy; Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were heavier still; in Japan, the Flower Travellin’ Band was shockingly heavy; but Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, England, was heavy metal. No joy here, nor any wisp of psychedelic whimsy. From the first note, this band sounded ancient, oppressed, as if shambling forward under supernatural burdens. With his use of horror-movie atmospherics—the tension-building tritone or flatted fifth—and the leering majesty of his riffs, guitarist Tony Iommi redirected the spiritual drag of the blues into an uncharted world of bummers and black holes. Bassist Geezer Butler, a mystical vegetarian, wrote the lyrics. Raised Catholic, Butler as a youngster had entertained thoughts of the priesthood, and for all the band’s occult trappings, his view of things was essentially orthodox, if a little on the medieval side: God over here, Satan over there, man flailing and biting his nails in the middle. “Lord of This World,” from 1971’s Master of Reality, made it all very clear:

Your world was made for you by someone above
But you chose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed

Relaying these panoramas in a bleak, monastically removed voice was singer Ozzy Osbourne—pre-solo-career, pre-reality-TV. Ozzy was a failed burglar, with meaty, tattooed fingers and the eyes of a worried child, who had once—without quite knowing why—daubed the legend IRON VOID on a roadside wall. Vocally, he filtered Butler’s Boschian sensibility through his own late-20th-century depression, in front of a band almost overloading with musical power: early live footage reveals the musicians “bobbing,” in the superb phrase of the metal historian Ian Christe, like “marionettes in the hands of God.” The sound itself dramatized a violent, existential bottoming-out, Iommi’s guitar lines rearing and plunging across the awesomely delayed crashes of drummer Bill Ward, percussions so far behind the beat that their impact was interior, nearly glandular, like the drench of adrenaline after hearing bad news. Thousands have attempted it, but the Sabbath sound has proved uncannily resistant to imitation: one band might achieve the huge travail of Iommi’s guitar tone, another the weird, weltering swing of the rhythm section. But no one else has managed to do both at once.

Rooted by instinct in the Dark Ages, squintingly at odds with progress, metal nonetheless strode forward hand in hand with technology: distortion, amplification, sustain; speaker stacks rising higher and higher. One well-struck chord, and the concertgoer was twisting in a vibrational abyss. Judas Priest (also founded in Birmingham) made a spectacular fetish of this new power in anthems such as 1980’s “Metal Gods”: “Marching in the streets / Dragging iron feet / Laser beaming hearts / Ripping men apart!” Spiked-and-leathered front man Rob Halford was a shattering diva, taking the stage on a Harley-Davidson and blasting unstoppably through the octaves.

Metal spawned plenty of variants in the ’70s and early ’80s, heavier or lighter in proportion to their distance from Sabbath’s original Weltanschauung—a word I use only because it sounds like a heavy-metal power chord. There was the goofy hedonist-metal of Kiss; the glorious, metallicized boogie of AC/DC; and the zooming, beyond-metal exuberance of Eddie Van Halen. Punk rock arrived, short-haired and anti-fantastical: no longer was it cool to sing about wizards. Still, metal insisted upon its diableries and warrior kings, even as its new standard-bearers (Diamond Head, Iron Maiden) made use of punk’s acceleration. Punk rockers, returning the compliment, commenced to pinch metal riffs.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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