Saturday, May 24, 2008

Things I Like, Part 2: Heavy Metal

Is there a genre of music as moronic as Heavy Metal?

Probably not.

The macho posturing, the deliberate aural strain, the obtuse doctrine of louder+ faster= better, not to mention the outlandish lyrical themes, the phony satanic idolatry, and who could forget, the assless leather chaps.

It's all very silly. It's what made This Is Spinal Tap so funny, after all.

And it's exactly why millions of boys are drawn to it like moths to a flame. It's quite possibly the most fitting soundtrack to male adolescence. Aggressive, rebellious and its lyrics are entirely comprised of sex, drugs, violence, oppression and the occult --things that a 13 year old boy finds fascinating and terrifying all at once.

I was one of those boys. Heavy Metal, and more specifically Thrash Metal --an amalgam of New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Hardcore Punk-- resonated with me from the first distorted tritonal chord I heard. The Thrash Metal bands were not as flashy or reliant on the Dungeons & Dragons imagery as their brethren often was, instead focusing on musical prowess and low-key personas. This lack of pretension appealed to me.

And what band was at the top of the Thrash Metal game? Metallica, of course. I mean, they had the word Metal in their goddam name! Their 1986 album, Master of Puppets, became a defining record for the genre and quite a revelation in my early musical life. No other band in the genre mattered as much to me. Of the big four of Thrash (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax & Megadeth) Slayer was undoubtedly the heaviest, but the absurd Sigil of Bathomet imagery and the Nazi undertones definitely turned me off, Anthrax was a bit too playful and fratboyish and I always thought that Megadeth's founder, and former Metallica member, Dave Mustain had a terrible singing voice and never lived up to his former bandmates.

Metallica, on the other hand, was a perfect blend of velocity, intensity and virtuosity. The title track off of Master of Puppets was a model representation of the band:

The song starts with a rhythmic staccato guitar riff stressed by drum and bass accents. That leads into a syncopated groove of the main theme that doesn't let up for two verses, bridges and choruses until it reaches a Metallica staple: the instrumental interlude. Not only does this curveball waylay the listener, but it also sets up the crescendo to the anthemic lyrical summation of the song and the subsequent guitar solo. And just when you think the song might be over, it kicks back in with another verse, bridge and chorus that leads into a coda and ultimately into the maniacal laughs of the titular Puppet Master.

From the moment I heard that song, the sound of Metal was ingrained in the nucleus accumbens part of my brain, producing great pleasure and satisfaction whenever heard.

Even though Metallica never really recovered after the death of bassist Cliff Burton and every album since has been progressively worse¹, that sound has lived in my subconscious ever since. As my tastes moved to the Pacific Northwest in the early nineties, the Metal tinges that bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains showed helped quench my thirst for headbanging as did the Melvins, Guns N Roses, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Quicksand, Helmet, Tool, Pantera, Kyuss, At The Drive-In, the Hope Conspiracy and Paint It Black for years to come.

As I started playing guitar around the age of 14, I learned that there's nothing more fun to play than Metal, too. The beauty of a palm-muted, down-stroked, mid-scooped, distorted open E string on a cranked up amp is quite heavenly (or hellishly, rather; to keep with the theme). It's akin to firing an AK-47 or wielding a thunder bolt, Zeus-style --something you just can't get from playing Guitar Hero, I assure you.

The feeling doesn't fade with time either. Even just a few years ago, whenever my ex-roommate/drummer James and I would jam out in our basement, every session would eventually escalate to a crushing Metal riff-off, no matter how tamely we would start. The power is too alluring to keep from embracing it; I don't know how anyone with an electric guitar can keep from wanting to unleash devastating riffage, it's too much fun.

So don't get me wrong, I love a folk ballad with a three part harmony and a flute solo as well, but if you really want to get me going, I'm going to need double kick drums, Gibson Explorers through Marshall stacks, wah-wah pedals and a pissed off, Cookie Monster-sounding motherfucker with a fu-manchu screaming on top of it all.

If I have to give up my indie rock credentials for that, then count me out. I'll be blasting "Fight Fire With Fire" in a '67 Mustang.  

¹Although they did team up with Rick Rubin for their upcoming album, so let's hope he can inject some metal back in their ever-hardening veins.  

See Also - Things I Like, Part 1: Basketball

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