I was in danger of being branded ‘dad metal’, ‘bank manager metal’ or, god forbid, hard rock, and therefore not a real metalhead. Other than a few forays into slightly more hardcore bands such as Lamb of God and Machine Head, I was still in the realms of classic metal, with a bit of thrash thrown in for good measure. I was identifying with the good old 80s stalwarts- Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. And my favourite band, Metallica, had been accused of being ‘crossover, ‘sellout’. Not that there was anyone to judge me, but I wanted to be authentic.
So I began to investigate the more extreme forms of metal, setting foot into a strange new world to which I absolutely did not belong. Extreme metal incorporates a wide range of genres; on the more ‘conservative’ end of the scale there are the classic thrash bands, moving through various types of death metal towards grindcore, bizarre types including one called ‘porngrind’, towards sounds that can barely be called music. There is even a genre called ‘noisecore’. Extreme metal is a world where bands compete with each other to come up with the most offensive names, song titles and album cover art. A list of bandnames from a 2016 death metal festival included: Severe Torture, Visceral Disgorge, Putrid Pile, Horrendous, Skullshitter, Excruciating Terror, Squash Bowels, Gorgasm. I particularly liked Cough- simple, straight to the point.
Extreme metal vocals are screamed, growled, roared, snarled; they are distorted rather than clean, similarly to an electric guitar. These vocals may sound untrained and unpracticed, but many of the most successful extreme metal vocalists take their instrument very seriously, using vocal coaches and singing exercises before performances in the same way as opera singers.
While lyrics are indecipherable, their meaning plays an important role for bands that take themselves very seriously, and it is fully expected that fans will go to the album liner notes or the internet to find out what they are and analyse them.
Extreme vocals are pitchless, which makes them genderless- they could easily come from a man or a woman, which perhaps goes some way to explaining how women have managed to carve a niche for themselves in this area. Pitch is an essential building block of language, and therefore by being pitchless, extreme vocals are somehow pre-linguistic, primal, and therefore animal. The inhumanity of the sound serves to emphasise the devilish, hellish aspect of black and death metal.
The top-selling death metal band of all time is Cannibal Corpse, an infamous American death metal band from Buffalo, formed in 1988. They have a cult following, in large part due to their deeply offensive lyrics and imagery, which have seen them banned in many countries. Cannibal Corpse lyrics are truly disgusting. When I searched for their songs on a lyric website, the first line I came across was ‘Let the anal gouging commence’. Ouch. It’s a shame because some of their lyrics are actually rather poetic. They claim that their songs are just horror stories, meant to be fun like scary movies, and servicing that very basic human need to confront the grotesque, the terrifying. But unfortunately the horrific violence directed specifically against women in their music is unforgiveable; no-one could reasonably claim that song titles such as ‘Fucked With A Knife’ and ‘Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt’ are tongue-in-cheek or cartoonish. Where this profound hatred of women comes from is an interesting question. What is even more interesting is that they have female fans.
Subgenres become more and more obscure, to the point almost of self-parody. There’s even a genre called porngrind. On the plus side men seem to get sexually tortured as well; one of the better-known bands in the genre is called Cock and Ball Torture. There were clearly many bands whose entire purpose for existence was to shock.
At first I struggled to find aesthetic merit in lots of the music I was hearing. There comes a point when the rapidity of the riffs render them unintelligible, and certainly the lyrics are unintelligible. Is there a point at which high art tips over into meaninglessness? Or at which so-calld ‘low art’ ceases to be worthy even of consideration? Some of the musicians were clearly technically very proficient, but often their very intricate guitar playing was as unintelligible as the lyrics, and it was hard to distinguish between competing blurs of noise. Poor production is the plague of extreme metal, since recording and mixing such low register sounds and achieving clarity of parts is notoriously difficult. It requires highly-skilled sound engineers and expensive studio equipment which most extreme bands cannot afford. However there is also an element of self-sabotage in the poor sound quality of these bands’ recordings. Many of them don’t want to sound good. Sludge metal- the word itself implied a muddy, messy sound. Norwegian black metal is deliberately blurry, almost watery, with the aim of being vague and disorienting. I wondered at this self-defeat, particularly when so many of these bands contain highly skilled musicians.
But gradually I began to find beauty and pleasure in the more extreme fringes of metal. I know about formless noise; my house filled with children is a den of discord, and it’s not music. This was music.
I began to listen to ‘mathcore’. Mathcore is a version of metalcore characterized by highly complex rhythms, dissonance, and frequent time signature changes. It is perhaps the metal equivalent of modernist composer Schoenberg. To the untrained ear, Schoenberg sounds random and meaningless, but it was in fact mathematically decided. His twelve-tone composition technique was to ensure that each of the twelve tones within the chromatic scale were used as often as each other, with no emphasis on any one note.
Mathcore bands such as Meshuggah, Car Bomb, and Dillinger Escape Plan are similarly complex in their shifting meters and rhythms, their experimentation. They can also sound like random collections of notes. But the difference between Schoenberg and Meshuggah is that Meshuggah intend to create a moving musical experience, while Schoenberg did not have musicality at the forefront of his mind but rationality, and is therefore not enjoyable. Swedish band Meshuggah insist that they don’t use complex time signatures, and in fact are just playing around with guitar riffs over a 4/4 beat, but this is the inarticulacy about their art that is a requirement for being truly metal. The truth is that Phds have been written about Meshuggah’s time signatures, which include such confusing rhythms as 23/8.
Mathcore was a challenge to listen to but the effort was worth it, and the achievement of simply managing to count their beats was satisfying. Incidentally, another band described as mathcore, Dillinger Escape Plan, are responsible for my second favourite Stupid Onstage Metal Incident of all time, when lead singer Greg Puciato defecated onstage at the Reading Festival, smearing some of it onto himself and hurling the rest into the crowd, to symbolize the ‘shit they were going to listen to’ at the rest of the festival. The sheer number of ways in which this managed to offend is impressive in itself. (My favourite, indeed everyone’s favourite onstage metal incident is of course the seminal moment when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a live bat).
I discovered Carcass, an extreme metal band from Liverpool, formed in 1985, disbanded in 1995 but reformed a few years ago, a familiar story in the resurgence of heavy metal. They have been categorised as grindcore (one of the pioneer bands, no less, with guitarist Bill Steer once a member of Napalm Death), splatter death metal, hardgore, and goregrind, as well as being credited with pioneering melodic death metal with their album Heartwork. Goregrind essentially means grindcore but with a focus on bodily functions, dismemberment, and general medical horror. Guitar work is highly complex but opaque, and growled vocals are further distorted and pitchshifted by the production, creating a ‘watery’, ethereal sound.
This may all sound absolutely horrendous, but Carcass clearly haven’t take themselves too seriously. To research their lyrics they go at medical textbooks with gusto, delighting in the somehow comedic listing of bizarre and gruesome medical conditions. Song titles include Crepitating Bowel Erosion, Reef of Putrefaction, Splattered Cavities. They are clearly vegetarians as many of their songs address the grisly aspects of abattoirs and animal slaughter, but in general they are interested in forensic pathology, and many of their songs are simple listings of the various ways in which human flesh can be desecrated. Vocalist Jeff Walker rasps out these lists in a caustic snarl, the detection of a slight Merseyside accent bringing a touch of humour. There is something poetic in the simple listing of words you didn’t even know existed, the wonder of the language. They have some rather poetic imagery as well, for example the song The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills, which evokes William Blake’s nineteenth century vision of a northern industrial hell.
But if lyrically they don’t take themselves lyrically too seriously, musically they certainly do. Carcass riffs are spectacular and intricate, with incredibly fast guitar cadences and constantly surprising harmonies, twists and turns.
By keeping an open mind, I was beginning to like things that before I would have never considered. The human brain is designed to recoil from unfamiliar sounds, it’s evolutionary, the sound of the unknown is the sound of danger.
You have to work up to extreme metal, and once you’re there it’s very hard to go back. I had now joined the quest for ever heavier sounds that is the essence of metal.