The Transcendant Power of Extreme Music

It’s June in New York and there’s rain spitting down on everyone stuck outside. But I’m inside at Warsaw, the Polish National Home in Brooklyn, one of a crowd of a thousand whose eardrums are being ripped to shreds. The bandleader is standing up on a crowded stage, using the neck of his guitar as a baton, his whole body pivoting between swells of violent noise that feel like blinding light. I have decided to take my earplugs out.

The band onstage is Swans, and I leave that night physically exhausted, as if I’d done something other than stand stock-still for two-plus hours. I have a hard time explaining to everyone just what was so pleasurable about the experience, that this all-rhythm, no-melody approach actually heightened the show’s sensory assault, and pushed it into territory generally never trod by touring bands: the transcendent.

There’s been an interesting online conversation brewing lately about the supposed benefits and potential detriments of loud and “angry” music. Over at The Atlantic, in a post titled “Finding Happiness In Angry Music”, Decibel contributor Leah Sottile argues for what she calls “constructive anger”, using negative emotions for positive outcomes, and she cites several studies to prove her point.

In response over at Invisible Oranges, Doug Moore asks: “Is dyed-in-the-wool metal fandom really a recipe for happiness?” “The world of death metal, black metal, grind, and so forth is a morass of bitterness and negativity that few would choose to enter without cause”, he continues. “Tortured aesthetics draw tortured souls.”

While some could rationalize this conversation as simply people justifying their own musical tastes, I think there’s something else going on, and both Sottile and Moore make good points about it. Metal, particularly of the extreme varieties, has certain aesthetic and thematic codes that trend toward the angry, nihilistic, and depressive: Satanism, suicide, violence, etc. This isn’t satanic panic; it’s the lyric sheet for the new Watain album. Now, it would be too much to take all of this exactly at face value, as these days I don’t find many metal bands that do either. But it’s worth exploring, since I often get asked questions about why I listen to metal, and sometimes I wonder too.

I think the essence of my answer lies in my experience at that Swans show. While not heavy metal [i]per se[/i], they are nevertheless an extreme group, pushing the boundaries of accepted tone and form in music, and I would place that experience in my personal pantheon of favorite shows: Neurosis back in January, Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in 2011. Anyone who has been to a performance of frightening volume and rumbling low-end can tell you that you feel as much as hear it. It starts in your solar plexus, a throb that isn’t pleasurable but isn’t painful, vibrating increasingly outwards until it hits your head and your arms and your legs, your body consumed like someone being abducted by a spaceship on The X-Files.

At that Godspeed show, the band opened with their “Hope Drone”, slowly segueing over a half-hour into “Gathering Storm”, their first “real” song. The throb passed into me slowly, until I was actually shaking, my mouth hanging wide open as mounting snares crashed into screaming guitars and the whole building sang. It was a profoundly visceral reaction, similar to the slow, methodical headbanging at Neurosis or Swans’ mutated grooves draining my energy. It is sound as a cleansing agent, removed of anger, sadness, pleasure, and bereft of space and origin. Whatever you know about the songs, the gear being used onstage, the musicians making the noise, it all slips your mind. Momentarily, you are negated, a joyous flipside to nihilism.

Now, this undoubtedly strikes some as pretentious, the druggy musings of someone who overthinks things for a living. Lest my straight-edge credentials come into question, however, I’d like to say that this is an ideal state, something which all of this music aspires to, achieving only momentarily. It is even more rare on record. A good number of the metal albums I’ve enjoyed this year — from groups like Inter Arma, Hessian, Windhand, and others — have been good, even great, but they fail to cross that threshold. Altar of Plagues come closest on their Teethed Glory and Injury, pushing the bounds of black metal and industrial music, and in the process reveling in a vicious, pummeling minimalism not too distant from Glass or Pärt, to my ear at least. It’s powerful and beautiful in terrifying ways. It’s new.

I also think that metal, similarly to hip-hop, is currently in the process of pushing bounds, testing borders, and messing with possibilities, in ways that big-tent genres like indie rock and country just aren’t. One does it because it has the cultural and commercial cachet to; the other, precisely because it lacks those things, and so the individual stakes are much higher, the public ones less. Kanye West can make his dissonant squalls because people like me will check them out and plunk down $13 for a CD anyway, while Thou or False will keep touring whether I exist or not.

This makes the end result exciting, the quality I would most associate with heavy and extreme music. Maybe it’s just my personal tastes, but I don’t give the “depressive” stuff much mind, and I crack a smile whenever lyrics about “death to a FALSE GOD” peak through the whirlwind on your average late-’90s black metal album. Maybe that’s closest to the “constructive anger” that Sottile talks about, turning these howls of desecration into creative potential. In an interview I conducted with Swans’ Michael Gira for the now-defunct Spinner, he described their work as “very joyous at times”, particularly in live performances, when “it’s almost a shared communal experience between the audience and us, it’s that the music is playing us, not the reverse, and we’re all inside it together”, No matter what I listen to, even in the blackest murk, I feel that transcendent power, something I very rarely get from other genres. Positive anger, indeed.