I didn’t like rap music when I was younger, but when my friends played “A Milli” by Lil Wayne, I was nodding to the rhythm in my mind. I didn’t like rap because it didn’t agree with my aesthetic of being into classic rock.
Eventually, I matured and overcame my anxiety about rap, realizing I could be a classic rock guy and a rap guy. Then I realized: there are no bad genres, only prejudicial listeners.
The final frontier for me was death metal—I was forcibly exposed to it on a 12-hour car ride from Baltimore to Chicago. In the chaotic screaming and blast beats, you can find a musical complexity and structure that’s more akin to classical music than other contemporary genres. There’s also a depth and weight to the lyrics that is a refreshing break from every song on the top 40 about breakups or partying.
In many ways, metal is a defiant critique of life in the modern age, where one struggles to forge identity and meaning in a world of moral relativism. Many metal bands also tackle, either consciously or not, the perceived crisis of masculinity in the Western world. Admirably, metal is a genre that takes itself seriously. While it sometimes falters in corny or cringe-worthy lyricism, often the poetics are honest, serious, and grapple with real issues.
“Anareta” by Horrendous is an exemplary album of death metal chromaticism (substituting atonal, dissonant musicality for harmonious melody), throaty, deep vocals, and gory aesthetics. On the cover, a god-like corpse of a horned human creature is attended on either side by the skeletons of two nymphs. Tiny people seem to walk up a winding arid path to the deity. Though the cover is gruesome and its meaning totally befuddling, the painstaking detail of the piece affirms the genre’s devotion to classical art.
This is a common theme among death metal and black metal albums—the album artwork involves precise rendering of a symbolic image in a way modern art, or pop album covers do not. This is not to say metal’s approach to album artwork is better, but rather that it is different and demonstrates the ethos of the genre: metal believes in classical aesthetics where mastery, complexity, and depth are valued.
“…metal is a defiant critique of life in the modern age, where one struggles to forge identity and meaning in a world of moral relativism.”
The first track of “Anareta,” “The Nihilist,” spells out a lot of these issues. The track is constructed like a classical piece with a haunting prelude of call and response that transitions to a chromatic, ascending progression of power chords and the kick drum pounding on every beat. “I am every man. Torn from the womb.” The vocals sound as though they are whistling through vitrified vocal chords, strained and throaty like a wounded pig’s squeal. Though the vocals may be abrasive to some, the very visceral passion and pain conveyed is effective at complementing the weight of the song’s lyrics and musicality.
At first I hated the screaming vocals, but with time I came to appreciate them. However, sometimes the screaming just sucks, just like a singer can suck. Out of a chorus of chromatic chord progressions, a gorgeous, bluesy guitar riff emerges, seeming to bleed at a blistering speed through the air with tremolo (the rapid wobble in pitch) and distortion. “Swallowed by institution / Preempt our inheritance/ While watchful eyes record each footstep/ Confer benevolent bondage.” Like a lot of good poetry, the lyrics are difficult to unpack.
In this track, the vocalist is conveying a world in which one is forced into nihilism. The self is obliterated by institution, the agency to forge the one’s future is usurped, and the individual is subjected to constant surveillance by authority. The bondage is one of servitude, and the benevolence of it all only exists in the propaganda of the subjugator. Rather than acquiesce to these humiliating conditions, the vocalist screams with great conviction, “But I dare not cede/ I will curse the sun/ I am one/ Curse the sun.”
To all those disenfranchised by modern life, this edict may send chills of resonance down the spine. In the last stanza, the first line repeats, “I am every man,” suggesting the universality of this condition.
Metal is a complex and diverse genre. Stay tuned for part two next week to learn more.