Thursday, July 29, 2010

Metal Jargon: Extreme

One word that metalheads use often and with fairly obscure meaning is the word "extreme." The most interesting metal, in my opinion, is commonly called extreme - the sub-genres of black, death, and doom metal. Critics and metalheads praise one band for being extreme, deride another for not being extreme, and note that the extreme extremeness of a third band makes their status as "music" openly debatable.

But "extreme," while a familiar word, has no concrete meaning. One thing can only be "extreme" in comparison to some other object. While a fan who listens devotedly to Dissection, Cannibal Corpse, and Entombed would find Judas Priest to be far from "extreme," "Breaking the Law" would seem radically extreme to somebody who grew up on Barry Manilow. So in order for me to use the word "extreme" with any meaning, I must set a base standard, a zero-point.

There are two ways in which a band, an album, a song can be extreme. One is "musical extremism," and the other is "lyrical extremism." Musical extremism manifests itself in volume, tempo, attitude, and complexity of music. Using obscure keys and relying heavily on dissonance is extreme. Like classical music, metal embraces virtuoso performance. There is even a sub-genre of death metal that plays the fastest, most complex riffs and rhythms possible, simply for the sake of being fast and complicated. But speed isn't the only way to be extreme. Deliberately slow tempos and down-tuned instruments are extreme as well, as funeral doom music clearly shows. Vocal delivery also adds an extreme edge - instead of merely singing, the metal vocalist can shout, yell, scream, screech, howl, yowl, groan, moan, growl, grunt, belch, or rumble his message.

That brings us to the second way that metal can be extreme - lyrical content. Metal vocalists sing about topics that popular artists often avoid - politics, religion, and philosophy. The range of views that metal vocalists express on these topics is incredibly diverse, surprisingly so to those who have not been exposed to metal before. Country singers sing about the farm and their small town, rappers rap about bitches and hos, and metalheads scream about Satan, right? Yes, but no, of course. Furthermore, saying that anti-Christian, anti-Religious, Satanic, Pagan, and Occult themes are all the same is like saying that anti-Americanism, anarchy, Pan-nationalism, British Loyalism, and Canadianism are all the same. There is plenty of nuance to explore.

It should be noted that social unacceptability is neither unique to metal nor a hindrance to commercial success. Prominent rap artist Eminem immediately comes to mind. While metal certainly causes more controversy at parties than Coldplay (especially among religious groups, who have been brought up to view it as a pure invention of the devil), it also exercises the listener's mind more. There are three messages that can possibly be delivered by any song - support of an idea, opposition to that idea, or neutrality on that idea. Opposition being the most extreme position one can take, it is the best suited for metal. Neutrality is the second best, simply stating facts and allowing the listener to judge. Support of an idea can be done, but it is much harder to do it with the emotional intensity that is such an integral part of metal.

As far as setting up a standard to call something extreme or not extreme, I will start with Black Sabbath. They were the first metal band, and so I will use them to set "neutral" on the extreme scale. Harsh vocals and violent themes will push music onto the side of extreme, major keys and narratives of dragons will push it back. I will be giving my own opinion on the extremity of any given album or band as they come into discussion, so I will not be setting up a rigid framework. This post is mainly to get your mind onto the right set of tracks. Where those tracks will go remains to be seen.

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