Entertainment May 2011

How Heavy Metal Is Keeping Us Sane

Dark and disturbing, the music is honest about human nature

Against the onslaught of callow modernity and shrinking guitar solos, metal’s treasury was preserved, transmitted, as the monks of old Ireland preserved and transmitted the manuscripts of the pagans. The year 1986 was a metal bonanza. Listen to Motörhead’s “Orgasmatron” on the album of the same name, and the song is a mid-paced rumble-grumble with an unmelodic vocal and a horrible snare sound—by no means the band’s finest hour. But when Motörhead went into the BBC’s studios that year to record a session for radio, lead singer Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister—one of metal’s great survivors—made a wonderful artistic choice: he recited the lyrics, unaccompanied. This is the way to hear “Orgasmatron”—as a poem, uttered in a burned-out, purely English voice (slight Staffordshire accent) that seems to issue from the deepest crevasse of J. R. R. Tolkien’s imagination.

I am the one, Orgasmatron, the outstretched grasping hand
My image is of agony, my servants rape the land …
I twist the truth, I rule the world, my crown is called deceit
I am the emperor of lies, you grovel at my feet

Orgasmatron is religion, politics, war: the dark and many-faced dominator of history, with man his piteous plaything. Now, what could be more heavy metal than that?

Answer: Metallica. The eight-and-a-half-minute title track of Master of Puppets, also released in 1986, is a battering, symphonic piece of speed metal, prodigal in its arrangements but performed in a cold fury of austerity, with nothing of Sabbath’s organic doom-groove. The Lord of This World, the Orgasmatron, the Master of Puppets has found a new matrix through which to work his ends, a new mechanism of despair: addiction.

Master of puppets
I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me
You can’t see a thing
Just call my name ’cause I’ll hear you scream

Metallica’s singer/guitarist James Hetfield—after Geezer Butler, the second great poet of heavy metal—would go on to make more-complex metaphysical statements: the astonishing “Sad But True,” from 1991’s Metallica, is Schopenhauer in the key of E minor. But with “Master of Puppets,” he hit a metal mother lode. Subjugators and string-pullers, principalities and powers: in the face of all these, heavy metal is cosmic protest music.

By dwelling at such length on the lyrics, and mentioning Schopenhauer, I of course risk the capital vice of the writer-on-metal: I risk being intellectual. Nothing disgusts a metalhead more than to be intellectualized. Which is not to say that he himself is without conceit in that department. The metalhead, quite counter to stereotype, is floridly pretentious. He will call his band Sanctum of Carnality, or Thy Maleficence; he will steep himself in the Stygian prose of H. P. Lovecraft, possibly the most insane overwriter since Webster; he will root through his thesaurus to find a fancy word for “dismemberment”; he will make up his own words, heavy-sounding words, like thraft (High on Fire) and cleansation (Chimaira). But all of this is best understood as a kind of voodoo, a force field of metal-ness with which to ward off the triflers and non-tragedians, while simultaneously short-circuiting the apparatus of good taste, correctly identified by the proto-metalhead G. K. Chesterton as “the last and vilest of human superstitions.” Faddists and lightweights: keep your distance. Critic: we will make your brain explode.

Culturally, metal has lost its boogeyman privileges, having been superseded in infamy first by gangsta rap and then by Britney with her shaved head and her dangerous umbrella. Never say never, but it appears that the age of anti-metal litigation is also over—that it peaked in 1990 with the suit against Judas Priest, in which it was alleged that backward messages concealed on the album Stained Class had driven two fans to suicide. This, even more than a similar 1986 suit against Ozzy Osbourne, was metal’s Scopes trial: Priest front man Rob Halford, he of the four-octave range, cracked up the courtroom with a tape of the backward messages he had found in Stained Class, including one that seemed to say, “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken.”

The panicking parents of yesteryear now seem like characters from folk memory. An anti-metal case in our current climate might more appropriately be brought by Richard Dawkins or the Council for Secular Humanism, arraigning some metalhead for singing too loudly about damnation. Not every metal act subscribes to the cosmology of Geezer Butler as made manifest in the sound of Black Sabbath: metal today is produced with equal sincerity and efficacy by atheists and Christians, depressives and libertines, diabolists, miserablists, absurdists, and those whose only religion is metal itself. But when it starts to get heavy, dilating your blood vessels and stirring the roots of your hair, you know you are approaching the primary vision—of man besieged, man pulled apart, man suspended over gulfs of penal fire.

Nu metal, the big metal noise of the ’90s and early ’00s, has come and gone. Metalheads never really went for it—too much rapping in there, and not enough warlocks. Where was the dread? The moral-astronomical scale? The itchy, hybrid bounce-crunch of Korn and Limp Bizkit seemed linked less to metal’s traditional concerns than to the blocked ducts and thwarted entitlements of a generation of football players. But even here metal was still performing at least one of its offices, doing bootleg rage therapy for a mass audience: in the moiling and roaring of Korn’s Jonathan Davis, especially, something fundamental seemed to be seeking an outlet. Other bands of the era had more typically metallic preoccupations. Fear Factory was obsessed with technology and the dissolution of the individual: “Must not surrender my God to anyone,” sang Burton C. Bell, “or this body will become carrion!” Slipknot, masked and boilersuited, the maddest of them all, had its fans going about in T-shirts that read People = Shit. Which is, you must admit, succinct.

The great scholar of heavy metal Robert Walser, doing research for his 1993 book, Running With the Devil, interviewed a Twisted Sister fan who told him that the easy-listening music favored by her mother had made her paranoid. In Walser’s words: “It so obviously seems to lie to her about the world.” An Avenged Sevenfold fan might say the same today about the music of Jack Johnson, or John Mayer, or Jason Mraz, or any of the golden troubadours on heavy rotation at your local Starbucks. I don’t mean to be ungracious about Starbucks—I happen to spend a good deal of time in Starbucks—but heavy metal reminds me that Starbucks, like much of modern life, is a fiction. Go through the membrane, break the crust, and everything is metal.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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