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Miscellaneous - Heavy Metal: The Sci-fi/Fantasy of Music

  by Mark Rowland

published: 15 / 1 / 2012

Miscellaneous - Heavy Metal: The Sci-fi/Fantasy of Music


In his 'Rock 101' column, Mark Rowland reflects upon the often maligned genre of heavy metal and asks if it can ever become cool

Heavy metal will never be cool. It never has been cool really, although one or two bands have managed to transcend the label. It is also incredibly popular, and attracts one of the most dedicated fanbases in music. As powerful as metal music is, it will never be the critic’s darling. From its inception, it has usually been seen as big, stupid and unfashionable. Most of the mainstream press have steered well clear of it and, when it is mentioned, it is often mocked. This is basically because almost every staple of the metal genre sits at odds to established notions of cool. Heavy metal is the sci-fi/fantasy genre of music. It’s for nerds, albeit occasionally big, scary-looking nerds. Before I get into the ‘whys’ of this, I know a lot of you are probably thinking, “It’s the horror genre, surely, what with all the devil imagery and whatnot.” You’d think that wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong. Rap is the horror genre of music – not for everyone, but more socially acceptable, much cooler than heavy metal. There are several reasons for this. First: lyrical delivery. Heavy metal is almost always delivered in an emotional way, the singer wearing his or her heart on his sleeve. Rappers tend to deliver their vocals in a more laid back manner – even those with a more aggressive delivery tend to be more emotionally detached than metal singers. And as we should all know, emotional detachment is one of the cornerstones of cool – the coolest rock stars are those that act like they really don’t give a shit. Second: space and swing. There is a sense of space in rap music that metal just doesn’t have. Metal is about density, thickness. Rap is more flexible, and is often sparse and minimal. Rhythmically, rap and hip hop swings. Metal pummels. It puts rap some distance ahead of metal in the sexiness stakes – I don’t need to spell it out. One more caveat: despite the fact that this is a piece about heavy metal’s lack of cool, it is written with the best intentions. This is not mocking metal – it is rather pointing out how metal is received in the media and by non-metal fans. I was a teenage metalhead and, although my tastes have expanded somewhat since then, there are still times when all I want to listen to is something big, noisy and fun. Metal, at its best, delivers that in spades. Some metal bands, as mentioned earlier, have managed to transcend metal’s uncool tag to receive positive mainstream media coverage and a fanbase that extends beyond metalheads. Looking closely at these bands reveals what it is that keeps metal from achieving ‘cool’ status. Let’s look at three bands that found a wider audience: Led Zeppelin, Queens of the Stone Age and Faith No More. They differ from many metal acts in three key ways. One: they break away from the genre’s conventions. Led Zeppelin pioneered this at the dawn of metal, mixing folk, celtic and world music, and expanding their instrumentation to incorporate organs, synthesisers, and string sections. Faith No More transcended genre, mixing funk, rap, pop, lounge even polka. Sometimes, their music had no trace of metal at all, taking on another genre entirely. Queens of the Stone Age are less adventurous, but are still open to experimenting with instrumentation and breaking conventions, most notably on ‘Rated R’, which opened them up to the mainstream. Two: they aren’t afraid to swing. Metal’s lack of swing is an issue for many non-fans of the genre, whether they know it or not. Swing tends to give music its danceability, its slink; the sexiness mentioned earlier. Led Zeppelin, Faith No More and QOTSA definitely have their pummeling moments, but they also know how and when to swing. Three: emotional detachment. If you want to seem cool, you have to act like you don’t care about anything. Josh Homme of QOTSA has such a lethargic vocal delivery that he always sounds like he recorded his vocal as an afterthought. Zeppelin and Faith No More are more traditionally ‘metal’ in this regard. Metal has always been a genre based on high drama – the production values, the performances, the lyrical content all add to the spectacle of metal, the OTT-ness of it, even at its grimiest. The closest genre to it in terms of drama is probably musical theatre, although musically the two have little in common. Led Zeppelin avoided the stigma of this by taking their lyrical cues from folk, while Faith No More got away with it by injecting a massive dose of humour and self-deprecation into their music – in fact, the band’s lyrics often skirted incredibly close to parody, as if it was mocking metal’s predilection for the overly dramatic (the ‘evil’ laugh that comes out of nowhere on ‘Land of Sunshine’ from their ‘Angel Dust’ album is a prime example of this). Really, all this adds up to is that metal can become cooler by becoming less metal, and this is hardly a sure fire way of achieving ‘cool’ status (look at the entire nu-metal genre; those bands added swing, dynamics and melody and 99.9999% of it stunk to high heaven). Luckily, the general metal fanbase, like Trekkies, is proud of its outsider status. Big and stupid it may be, but metal, like all the best culture, gives people a sense of belonging that they wouldn’t necessarily have.

Visitor Comments:-
524 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 06 Feb 2012
Got to, generally, agree with Mark in slating HM. Pretty dire in its undiluted form - dumb ass rawk 'n' roll played by people with stunted emotional issues and dodgy views on women. But: 1) how can you not be enchanted by the brilliance of something like Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid'? 2) And can you explain why grunge is/was so venerated by critics and yet HM isn't? Yet there seems to be little difference to me apart from style of haircut.

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